I’m Erik Davis, and I had the great good fortune of spending a few days with Terence McKenna and his girlfriend Christy Silness in their jungle home on the island of Hawaiʻi in November 1999. Sadly, the occasion was not so fortunate. McKenna had been diagnosed with a brain tumor the previous summer and he was home recovering from a recent craniotomy. I was there to profile him for Wired magazine, and it turned out to be the final interview he gave before his death at the age of 53 in April of 2000. McKenna’s home lay along a rutted road that wound its way up the slopes of Mauna Loa from the south Kona coast. It was a white modernist origami structure topped with a massive satellite dish and a small astronomy dome designed to house a telescope that McKenna could not yet afford. The house and gardens were surrounded by a riot of vegetation, but among the native flora lay thick ropes of banisteriopsis caapi, and a sprinkling of flowering salvia divinorum.
Every morning I ascended a spiral staircase decorated with blue LEDs to get to his study, where McKenna spent the bulk of his time either working on his Macintosh or sitting cross-legged on the floor before a small oriental carpet surrounded by books, smoking paraphernalia, and twigs of sage he occasionally lit up and wafted through the air. His library was magnificent. Thousands of books on alchemy, Tibetan art, Hindu metaphysics, systems theory, archeology, astronomy, and, of course, psychoactive lore. During the day I asked the usual reporter’s questions, but in the evening we would relax and follow less quotidian pathways through the cosmos of conversation. McKenna rose to the occasion of his own mortal condition, and though he tired quickly and occasionally spaced out, he was as brilliant and funny as ever. What follows are edited portions of these dialogues.
So, what was your first encounter with psychedelics, either in a strong way or just…
Well, it was a friend of a friend of mine when I graduated from high school. They were building that band. So he insisted that we eventually smoked pot and take acid. And I had never encountered old lefties or acid heads or musicians or gave a shit about any of this stuff before. It was all new to me. I had just come from Colorado to the west coast, so I was easily swept into all of this. And he and his friend were into—who was that strange heroin-based comedian?
No, no, not Lenny Bruce. Stranger; more heroin. The guy who did the thing about Dinez! Lord Buckley. Yeah. And they were into all of this stuff. And I had been studying the Evergreen Review for a couple of years trying to figure out what was going on with the culture, but when I finally got to this scene, and all this acid, and all this left-wing politics and all that, then I understood. And…
So anyways, so he turned—
He basically turned me on, and…
Were you kind of fascinated from the get go?
Well, I’d been worrying about mescaline since I’d read The Doors of Perception three or four years before. And I’d also read Havelock Ellis’ The Dance of Life, which has a long chapter on mescaline. Actually, that passage in Havelock Ellis—it’s only a page or so—is one of the most seducing passages in all of psychedelic literature. He was taking peyote at the turn of the century. These are the people who really got in under the wire. Took it a hundred years ago. Can you imagine? That is hard to grab hold of!
Were you always sort of partly as much influenced by the kind of alchemical, mystical, historical books you read in some way, as well as like the more primal, evolving—
Well, I was raised by Catholic rationalists, so it’s hard to square that. In other words, you would run around spending part of your time trying to understand the nature of guardian angels, and the rest of the time grappling with fairly rational concepts. I mean, my family’s basic orientation was mining. Not science in the sense of degree science, but my father was an electrician, my uncles ran radio and television repair shops, and my father flew, navigated, did radio. But I did spend a lot of time grappling with shit like the nature of the soul, and the nature of sin, and all of these imponderables, you know? And, of course, what you end up doing is: you end up reading scholars of mysticism. And then I would read about what John of the Cross or somebody else got hold of, and then I would try for it. And I don’t recall getting too far, but…
When you were still…
Quite young. Yeah.
Right. So you were still thinking in a Catholic mind?
Yeah. Because it was all religious mysticism. There was no other form of mysticism before Huxley published his books. I mean, it was somehow—well, for Catholics there was no other form of mysticism. There was Ouspenskyitis, and Gurdjieffianism, all these peculiar…. But none of that was quite kosher. It was…
So did you have a break with Catholicism or did it just mutate into all of your—
It sort of mutated. I read Jung, is what happened. I first read Psychology and Alchemy, and that led me on to the other one, which is deeper about all of that. It’s something about the nature of the Christos and alchemy. And then I saw how these geographically defined religious impulses could be part of some broader, deeper thing. And alchemy. It was a revelation to me, all that. I didn’t get religious history from the church the way I got if from Jung. Because from Jung I realized it was books, and so you could read these books. And it was torturous. It was when I was first going to Cal. But on the other hand, I had a library card and I could actually get at this stuff in whatever form it can ever be gotten at. I mean, alchemy makes no sense at all if you actually read the literature.
So when you decided to start speaking, and doing these conferences, and speaking on the radio, did you have a sense of a kind of mission?
Well, I always felt people should know about psychedelics; that that was the untold story, you know. That if there was anything new to be said or brought into the cultural dialogue, it was the news that these psychedelics were not these very tricky to manufacture drugs like LSD, but that it was really about plants. And I don’t know how to say it. I had the sense of mission. I certainly thought it was a fine idea that people realize. And I was also interested in feedback. You know, it wasn’t that I wanted to enlighten people, I wanted to hear what people had to say about this stuff, because to me it was all so confounding. The transformations of language, the—what it did to information. I mean, that’s still what psychedelics are about: it’s what it does to information.
Talk about that a little bit, and how do you…
Well, it seems to show some kind of—how would you put it?—some kind of universality of source, or some… language is not syntax, it’s not grammar, it’s none of these things. It’s some kind of divine (you could almost call) energy which flows out of objects and situations. Everything wants to communicate. And so then, what the Chain of Being is, is: somehow handing connectivity on to the next plant, animal, human being, work of art, whatever it is. And I still grapple with what all this means. And to me it’s the most psychedelic part of the psychedelic experience, is: when you get the lógos coming out of the trees, the rocks, the berries, the water, and everything. And it’s the most Taoist part of it. It’s where nature becomes transparent to its own intent to communicate, or something like that.
Are you, when you think back of what you felt like you were involved with in the mid-1970s, in terms of propagating the psychedelic experience, and you sort of felt that in a way you were being one of a number of Johnny Appleseeds. When you look now at what happened, emerged from that, are you disappointed in some ways? Or—
No, I don’t think so. Considering the fact that, for the past year or so, or maybe longer, it’s been legal to grow mushrooms in Holland and purvey them, I would say all goals were met. That the thing was brought into human cultivation. It will never leave it. No, it’s a very rare thing to be able to bring an organism into the human family like that. And when we found stropharia cubensis, it was standing waist-deep in cow shit. And now it’s part of the human family of agricultural production. It’ll never leave it. It’ll always be part of global culture now. So…
And do you think that you have the feeling that, in some sense, it will remain at least for the foreseeable future a somewhat marginal road? Like a path—certain temperaments or characters inside of the social matrix of reality have recourse to, but that don’t really dominate?
Sure, because if they really wanted a lot of psilocybin, you would do it differently. You would grow it in enormous vats of liquid that were the size of railroad cars, and you would produce millions of hits within days of scaling up. So no, what it is, is: it’s a folk technology at the margin of civilization, and an underground technology for the production of these drugs. Like, I understand you can make methamphetamine out of Clorox and some other shit; I have no idea. But it sounds very simple. Well, so this kind of at-the-edge-of-things knowledge is very critical to—and that’s where the shamanism is in the culture; the tricks of the trade.
So the shaman is [???] because that’s an inevitable—
Well, these are esoteric secrets: how to make drugs. And the drugs change minds and make money. So, inevitably, it’s going to be part of [???]; some kind of negotiation takes place. Negotiations like that rearrange the morphology of the social… or the mindspace of the people.
Well, what do you think constitutes a postmodern shaman; someone who’s legitimately doing shamanic work, and not sort of acting out of fantasy or playing some game of identification with the other?
Well, I think you have to know your pharmacology and trust that you know it, and then be trusted sufficiently that you’re willing to lead people with confidence through these places. These ayahuascero psychiatrists are very courageous and have built up sets of metaphors and assumptions that I think are probably true, or true enough. But it really takes balls to hold your ground with this stuff, you know?
That must’ve been interesting in the sense that you were propagating the philosopher’s stone to brethren.
And it was going many other places. A lot of people were interested.
No, that’s what I meant. I mean, through the whole network of freak… wars.
Culture. Yeah. Well, and it wasn’t so much the mushroom, it was the information. You know, the knowledge of the technique. It was like the atom bomb or something: it was not whether you had it or not, it was whether or not you knew how to do it. And…
So it’s interesting to see the way that other plants now—the mushroom parasited on print pamphlet technology. Now the more emerging plants that are reencountered have a different propagation device, of information [???] forward.
Yeah. In one case, Brazilian cults; in another case, almost landscaping, like salvia. I don’t know if you’ve seen those clumps of salvia on the road, but all the blue flowers and all that—yeah. The mushroom is the most insidious and amusing, because it seems to associate itself with human beings. Like, for instance, one of the densest psilocybin ecologies in the world is Oregon and western Washington. Well, one of the main industries of those areas where these mushrooms are so dense is the production of sod to be shipped all over the country and world, to be pushed into malls and hotel lawns and golf courses. So it’s essentially an enormous economic engine for spreading psilocybin spores throughout the planet.
What happens to people that lets them tune into a deeper level of intent, that wakes them up from the spell of mere consumerism, and their kind of subjectivity that is the manipulation of images and desires that constitutes consumerism, and which dominates many people’s lives?
Well, then they probably head for deeper values. Either Buddhism, shamanism, whatever lies in their own ethnic background. Because, in fact, civilization is a con. It’s a cheap delusion of a solution. So anybody who sees past the front door probably wants real structured values. And so that’s where all the conservative resistance comes from. The fundamentalist Christians, orthodox Jews, Buddhists. All of these people are saying, “Well, hey, wait a minute. We don’t want to go down this path only so far.” And that’s probably a good break. Otherwise we would create a civilization that was essentially a mall. And there’s enough of that anyway.
So that’s instead—that turn towards deeper values, even if sometimes they take a conservative form—is ultimately a kind of healthy balance to just the sheer…
Rush toward novelty. Yeah, I think so.
And do you see psychedelics playing a role in opening up that kind of…?
It depends on how it’s presented. It depends on the psychedelic. If it comes along with some wizened 90-year-old Indian from South America, it’s hard to see that we’re abandoning ourselves to the trivial and the concocted. And so it’s a marketing and packaging issue, basically.
So what would that look like, then, if you were—
Well, I’d say the wrongly packaged version would be some kind of—like Castanedaism. A formulatic cult. Do these things, take these drugs, follow these instructions. Moral obligation will flee from your ken. Nobody can be that foolish. If, on the other hand, you sincerely pursue this stuff—grow the plants, try to understand it, try to revivify the rituals and figure out what it’s all about—well, that’s an authentic push towards spirituality. And a very authentic push towards spirituality. And probably fruitful.
Do you think in that process the actual handling of the plants—growing them, getting to know their cycles—is necessary?
Yeah, because that’s the level, that’s the speed, that’s the—well, that’s the speed on which nature makes this stuff; you know, brings it to the surface and invites its contemplation. And it’s also probably the right speed at which to assimilate this stuff, to come to terms with it.
So, in that sense, part of the problem with synthetic psychedelics is that they’ll fit too easily into a kind of consumerist model?
Lifestyle. Right. It’s not a product, you know? It’s not something where you get the drug of the month, or something. Although all these things have been proposed and some have been tried. It seems to me the shamanic drug of the month is not a very appealing idea.
What are the emotional, psychological, ethical expressions of really, kind of, genuinely long-term, good, psychedelic people?
What is the long-term ethical expression of the good of psychedelic people? Well, it’s some kind of effort to separate shit from shinola. In other words, it’s some kind of effort to distill a truth from the blooming, buzzing confusion of the universe. So it’s a branch of—I don’t know what you would say; cognitive science or something like that. It’s an effort to define the human essence away from its content, or something like that. You see what I mean?
Explain a little more.
Well, it’s a branch of psychology. It’s a self-study in psychology. So anybody who’s taking psychedelics is, I assume, trying to present a truer image of themselves to other people and the world through this process of distillation of understanding. And that’s where the connection to alchemy and all that comes in. This distillation of essence away from the dross confusion and gnostic muck of the world is a kind of like a Jungian individuation process, or something like that.
And that manifests in the call, even in normal life, to present it yourself, to articulate one’s self, differently?
I think so, yeah. And causes people to be willing to take chances—both pharmacological and sociological—by being involved in something so marginal, you know? Because in the big civilizations this kind of shamanic stuff is definitely very marginal. Most people just don’t do it.
Do you feel that that characterizes the overall, or in some significant way, the kind of people that you’ve met for the last—
It depends on how often they do it. You know, some people are doing it because their friends are doing it. Some people are doing it because some—I dunno—they’re feeling some kind of social pressure. But the people who are really called to do it are rare. You know, the people who say, “Well, I get loaded ten times a year on high-dose psychedelics, or six times a year.” That’s a lot. I mean, that means your lifestyle is pretty much defined by all that stuff. Yeah, I would love to know what the real numbers are. How many people a year get really loaded—once you get the Amazon Indians out, have the Mexicans out, and a few of these people out. It’s hard to even know how you begin to make an estimate, you know?
Before your sickness, how often did you do large journeys?
Less and less often. I mean, I noticed that through the 1990s. But maybe four or five times a year. But I always felt: never enough. You know? Never enough.
So do you have the sense that—the tripping—that you on some level are getting something done?
That tripping is getting something done?
Yes. That there’s something being worked out. Like, continuously and progressively.
Yeah, I assume that, basically, the download called “history”—meaning all the technology, social innovation, philosophy, art, fashion, architecture—is some kind of dialogue with this—well, “higher mind” is… I’m not entirely comfortable with that—but this higher mind that keeps showing these different facets through the mist. I mean, that science and psychedelica and all this is a dialogue with the mathematical deep structure of nature, and that somehow, as you get that out, there’s this sense of progress—more than a sense of progress; progress. And in terms of: what is it all leading toward, or what it’s about, it must be something about like the spiritualization of matter; that matter is evolving toward quintessence, or essence, or something like that, and we’re the startled witnesses to this thing, because we’re part of this stuff that I called emergent properties (or the side-effects, you could almost say) of the universal emergence of matter into spirit. Because that’s what biology is. I think biology is the quantum-mechanical magnification of uncertainty into macrophysical space. So that, essentially, we’re chemical systems that (by some means yet to be understood) amplify quantum-mechanical uncertainty into dimensions such as we see. And that permits these emergent properties and systems and morphologies to show themselves. And that’s the trick, or that’s the trick explained on one level.
You know, it’s funny. In your raps you stay away from what a lot of people would consider spirituality. In a way. Like the way that somebody would present their Jewish spirituality, or Buddhist practice, or whatever. You don’t talk—in fact, often you sort of slagged the guru-model. And you kind of separate yourself from that. And you really have a kind of—like, you’ve maintained the sort of… I don’t know how to characterize it. And yet, at points, obviously, you are going to be [???] by something that, in your own language, you would call spiritual. What comes up around that?
Well, I guess I believe I’m some form of progressive historian; that history is progressive. So then, the story of evolution and biology and human culture and all this is assumed to be a story with a happy ending. So, in a way, this belief in telos, which is not philosophically sanctioned, or this eschatological vein in my personality, is what gives it a spiritual impulse. But it’s the idea that time—it’s an alchemical idea, actually—it’s the idea that time will perfect matter. And I think probably will perfect matter.
What do you think about? Do you think of postmodern spirituality as a legitimate charm or project?
You mean to believe or involve yourself in, or…?
Believe… it’s not really about belief. I mean that whatever the kind of—there’s a lot of people now who are developing a relationship with all different kinds of spiritual practice, and they’re not really doing it even in the way that people did in the 1970s, where there was so much more true believing. It’s a different kind of relationship.
It’s probably on a short spin, a short cycle, that a lot of empiricists are taking up Dzogchen. And how long can that go on? So then there’ll be a lot of revisionism and rethinking and recasting of all this, which is the very best thing for it.
Yes, it is.
So were you ever very interested in meditation or yoga?
When I was in India and immediately before I went to India, when I was in the Seychelles the first time, I was. Because when I was in Mombasa, Kenya, I came up on this place called—I can’t remember—anyway, it was a library that was basically having a bargain sale in the theosophical literature. So I took about fifty kilos of yogic, Arthur Avalon, theosophical literature with me to the Seychelles. And that is what I read and worked through when I was out there.
How is it that you relate to mysticism, to mystical experience?
Oh, you mean as a source of valid data about what’s going on?
Not even that far. I mean, that’s one way of judging it. And it doesn’t necessarily need to be valid date. I mean, it’d be interesting, this library, obviously—mysticism is completely surrounding us.
Well, I guess I would say the more personal the mystical indicator is, probably the more likely I am to take it seriously. In other words, it seems to me if you extrapolate your mystical insight beyond the personal, you probably enter into the domain of inflation; of some kind of psychological inflation.
So is Plato inflated?
Is Plato inflated? No, probably not. But he probably gets a pass as some kind of pioneer!
You could just start out by talking about the relationship between technology and shamanism.
Well, you remember Eliade’s basic book, which is Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. That book was originally written in French. And in French, as I don’t have to tell you, the word “technique” has this dual meaning of both “a way to do something” and a “technology.” So from Eliade’s point of view, shamanism was always about techniques to achieve these (what he called) ruptures of plane. And these ruptures of plane were these breakthroughs into these healing spaces. And for him it was always drugs, yoga, or ordeal, or maybe yoga/ordeal. So in a way, pushing on the frontier of language and pushing on the frontier of technique always brought some form of breakthrough. And I suppose the perfect example would be fire. Where fire must’ve been something—we talked about this myth thing yesterday. But so fire technology, the visible transformation of materials through heat and all of that, leads straight into better weapons, stronger building materials, so forth.
So do you see, then, that even though the West turns away from the worldview of the premodern enchanted universe, is that there’s still something in that process of technological development which is linked to those older technologies?
Well, the way chips are made and the way solid state objects are assembled often is just a matter of bringing a mix of materials to a certain temperature and a certain proportion of materials, and then standing back and letting the laws of physics rearrange the atoms so that electricity or information or something flows through this in an expected way. I think we’re still involved in discovering what can be coaxed from the physical world just by letting physical laws unravel themselves.
And that seems, to you, connected with an ult… the operation of doing that goes farther back than just modern science?
Yeah. At low temperatures it’s about psychoactive drugs, and brewing and combining biological materials. And then at higher temperatures it becomes about this other thing.
In one of my alchemical readings of modernity is that electricity is a kind of element in the old sense of “element,” and that it has certain properties that evolve as you develop almost a shamanic relationship with it, in the sense of using it, and it developing a relationship with electrical potentials. And that interjects a kind of life into the human organism that fundamentally changes it, because it’s introducing this element of electricity which has certain properties of communication. Electricity is very strange. It’s pretty far out stuff. You just laid out electricity to somebody, just kind of said these are how these fields work, and they’re not actually da-da-da-da—it’s total science fiction. We’re just sort of used to that story. It’s an amazing thing, and those potentials are being, then, introduced into human communication. So that fundamentally changes them. And I think spiritualism is like a reflection in the archetypal imagination of modernity about the kind of communication that is introduced by electricity.
Interesting. It’s sort of—you know, McLuhan had this idea about the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost, was electricity. And that the covering of the Earth by the matrix of the Holy Ghost had initiated the third world age, and all this.
Right. And that picks up a line of thought that’s been carried through since it first starts. The idea of electricity is born in an alchemical imagination, it’s born in a pre-point to the royal society break, or whatever you want to call the genuine scientific transformation that split alchemy into this shadow realm of culture. But—it comes up in that alchemical matrix.
In Mason & Dixon there are scenes in Philadelphia in the 1770s in coffee houses where electricity is being sold as a drug. You pay your money and then you grab onto this thing, and they rip this thing around until it throws you off, and you pick yourself up off the floor and then go back and pay again and get more. It’s just this insane scene.
It’s funny to say, but you look at 20th century science, and even though its story has nothing to do with alchemy, that it really is this kind of fulfilling of visionary notions about the way that matter and energy and mind can be stitched together.
Well, and it turns out it’s all true. I mean, what 20th century science proved is: you can actually do almost anything. And so, you know, you want to change lead to gold? You want to create life? You want to store information in crystals? All these things, it’s now come to pass, and much, much more besides, proving that matter is really magical material that you can pull off all these tricks with.
So what is it about the alchemy that really kind of got you?
The surrealism of it, the shifting imagery, the associational… schemas are very attractive.
They are. What do you think’s behind them?
Well, the basic concept is that somehow intuition and nature are reflective of each other. Until that hypothesis fails we should probably hang on to it. Because look how far we’ve gone—I mean, it is really bizarre how much of nature the human mind seems to be able to understand. I mean, my god, instruments are circling around Ganymede based on some guy in a powdered wig looking out his crenelated window, you know, figuring out this shit. How did they pull that trick off?
Well, I mean, that gets to the whole thing about this sort of destiny of technology, or the way that… I mean, it’s…
Yeah, it’s like a white cane, and you’re just feeling forward into the universe, you know? And what is it all leading toward?
How do you, in your own head, have come to reconcile those two sides? The side that’s mystical—or fascinated by these questions of the soul, or the things that are beyond reason, and the intuition—and the way that you relate to reason, at least as it’s expressed through a certain kind of skepticism and a certain kind of love of science?
Well, I still believe what the angel told Descartes, which is: nature is understood through the coordination of measurement and proportion. So, really, nature is the study of proportion and the making of measurement. And there doesn’t seem to be any problem in any—we have very powerful instruments for taking measurements and very powerful instruments, now, for modeling and constraining the data. And we’re making progress. I mean, I think in terms of stuff like the Internet, human longevity, recovery of energy sources, and all this sort of thing, that humanity is probably in great shape for the next hundred years if anybody gives a shit. But that kind of timescale, you know?
So you’re not as overwhelmed with a kind of dystopian scenario, which is the obviously easy thing to do when contemplating the future?
Yeah. I think that dystopian in the sense of losing control of primary processes inside civilization and so having, like, disease, fascism, economic breakdown, problems like that—no. I’m pretty high-faith in systemics.
Do you see the Internet as being both—is that more of a hopeful direction, or can you see it also exacerbating the problem?
No, I think it’s more of a hopeful direction. The happy story I like to tell myself about the Internet is someone in some tiny village up in Ontario or in Kenya or in Brazil, somewhere, who gets next to the Internet and realizes: I can get out of this preposterous scene by simply—if I’m ambitious, if I just unleash my own ambition, and the educational power of this, then I can go to the large city and conquer, go to the capital and export myself to somewhere else. And I assume this is happening. Because you meet in the third world incredibly ambitious people, who only by their circumstance are confined. Well, if you rearrange their circumstance—so if they want a degree in electrical engineering, all they have to do is be online night after night after night. That’s pretty exciting.
So how do you see that changing the cultural matrix, or the emerging global culture?
Well, hopefully it gives it a more international flavor. And people realize that there is a—I don’t want to use words like a natural elite of native intelligence, or something like that—but in fact there is something there. I mean, smart people—it would be a fine thing to put them in charge for a while and see if that does any good. I mean, they’re taking charge where the money is, but that’s not a very deep value. What if they took charge where the power and the actual… well, the morphogenetic intent was coming from? I don’t know. The design process, this is what—
But do you see that happening? If that’s sort of your vision, you must be a little concerned about the evident power of money and pure greed to largely drive development rather than design principles with a nod towards the future, social equity, ecological improvement.
Yes, except to some degree accept that it is a—Mao said, or somebody said, to get rich is glorious. I’d say to get rich is modestly affirmable. Something like that. There’s no sin in getting rich as long as what you’re doing is not making people into lampshades or something like that. It’s better than a collectivist goal of some sort, it seems to me.
How do you feel about that conjunction of media manipulation, money, and celebrity that’s so dominant now?
Well, you have to have something to say. You know? You have to have something people actually want. I mean, if you’re selling the Rolling Stones, or you’re selling Charles Manson, or you’re selling something like that, you might get somewhere. But inherently you can’t sell that which is eternal, or it turns against itself. And that’s what defeated fascism: nobody wanted it. It was ugly, ultimately. It’s probably what defeated socialism: cinderblock housing facilities and all this rhetoric about the…. I don’t know. Social planning ran off the cliff in the 20th century, maybe because there were too many people or too much money or not enough money. That something defeated all these utopian visions of how people might’ve lived. That’s what I’m hoping doesn’t happen in the next 25 years.
That what doesn’t happen?
That some lack of resource or vision doesn’t reveal that we can’t give enough people a bearable life. So we have to live forward into an age of revolution, social turmoil, and struggle for resources. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Do you see it going in that direction?
Toward that kind of a struggle? That’s my concern. That people and institutions not respond to need, and then what you get is a have/have not situation. I mean, you wouldn’t want the first half of the 21st century to look like the first half of the 20th century, you know? With the equivalent of a Bolshevik dialogue, the equivalent of whatever soft leftism turned out to mean and be. Because it turned out to mean and be not bloody much, as far as I can tell. There was a lot of labor unrest, some amelioration of some people’s dilemma in the system. But the world is far richer than it appears to be. And that wealth is not trickling down or flowing down or making nearly as many people’s lives as good as it could be. So far, it doesn’t seem to have gotten out of hand. I mean, most people, if you give them a lot of money, they buy second homes and collect art. Well, this is not exactly like hunting down Serbs with your shotgun or something.
These entrepreneurial capitalists, this is what they’re doing. They’re building vast wealth downstream for their children. It’s probably sort of like the invention of very large and stable sailing vessels—whenever that happened, 250 years ago—where suddenly a whole bunch of people realized: “All we need is some money. Not too much money. If we buy a ship and sail it out to Indonesia and bring back a load of nutmeg, our children’s children’s children will never work again. We need one load of this shit.” And they have to work, of course. And then they get a certain lifestyle, and a certain amount of social respect out of it. But I think what they really get out of it is the satisfaction of knowing that they’ve secured for their heirs a comfortable existence unto the 9th generation, or something.
Well, what’s interesting about that, because that ties in with the genetics. If you buy into some evolutionary psychology, certainly at this stage of the game one of the forms that that would take is not merely like the logic that guides how you choose a mate, and the fact that your status and money might—you know, if you’re a male—bring you a foxier, younger babe than the schmoe who’s shoveling shit. That one form of that would take would of course be to maintain your genetic line to a great a situation as possible.
Well, and now people understand that this is what your genetic line is about. That to cope, or to be in a Darwinian position of competition in this society, means to have money. And not a little, not sufficient, but plenty. So that when you need to arrive and be met by Rolls Royce limousines or whatever, that it’s not an issue, and this all comes down.
But do you see that there’s also a kind of madness to that? To that—
Yeah, I’m not motivated—I mean, as you see: I need a place to keep some books dry. Having achieved that, my motivation falls to pieces and it’s: alright, what else do we need to keep dry? Some firewood, okay. A truck, okay. That’s about as far as I can go.
You know, the way that technology, that the Internet, would allow you to build a different kind of career—because you don’t like traveling. What are you working towards?
Well, essentially the philosopher’s stone without any dross. In other words, everything I require of the alchemical quintessence, the Internet provides, except physicality—which I didn’t require. So that’s what I meant—I think I said to you yesterday or the day before that at times these technological developments have taken place that seem to me designed uniquely for my own satisfaction. Sputnik couldn’t have worked better for me. Acid. Rock’n’Roll. Small computers, large computers, the Internet. So in my internal story about what’s supposed to happen, everything is happening right on time, right on schedule. I mean, this is the thing that, if you believe knowledge is power—which I certainly do—then the Internet is the dispensation. The angels have landed, the aliens have unfurled their banner on this planet. And now let’s see if information can liberate. That’s why I don’t want to do something stupid like die and miss the whole unfoldment of this proposition that knowledge is power, information will liberate. And it will be settled in the next ten or fifteen years. Either they’ll get a handle on it—whoever “they” are, whatever “a handle” means—or it will slip from their control and it will be clear that some kind of dialogue is now going on between individual human beings and the sum-total of human knowledge, and that nothing can stop it. That some kind of Renaissance, some kind of total new relationship to knowledge and possibility is put in place.
The idea you had about—I’ve heard you mention before—about somehow taking advantage of the net to allow you to continue your career without having to move around so much—I mean, that seems to be one of the real weird paradoxes of the scene we’re in. Is that at the same time as we’re creating these great communicating devices, that people are flying around to conferences, to talks, even more than they ever have before.
Yeah, well, I don’t really understand that. This morning I was looking at the brain tumor list. Well, fully one third of the brain tumor list is people planning get-togethers at the next brain tumor conference. Will you be going to Atlanta? Will you be going to Vermont? Are you going to London? So no matter whether you’re in investment counseling or dying of cancer, you can turn it into a circuit, a life, a phenomenon of some sort. I’m not very interested in that.
You’ve done a circuit for a long time.
I have. I have. And I feel like I paid my dues, and I feel like you have to be visibly at some of these things, because you’re marketed as a personality. And, you know, I’m not William Burroughs, nor was meant to be, but I am interested enough in being read that I’m willing to sign books and stand up and tell stories.
I’m interested in how you use the net. Like, say you spend maybe four hours a day doing email, but then also surfing.
Well, basically, as an informational resource. An oracle. And sometimes even almost like a magical oracle. I mean, words will come to me, and so I’ll search them and just follow this stuff where’er it leads. So I don’t know—there’s some term for that. I’m not sure what it is. But yeah, it’s like a—
Term for what? That style of—
Yeah, surrealists. I guess automatic writing, except this is automatic inquiry, or something like that, where you just cast bread upon the waters and see what comes back, you know?
Do you ever have this sense of, as you develop that kind of relationship to it, that it becomes more alive?
Well, it becomes more synchronistic in the way that people have said the I Ching seems eerily alive, because it anticipates and it seems to respond like a thinking thing. So in that sense it doesn’t become so much more alive as it becomes more intelligent. So maybe, really, the key to bringing the net through is to discover universal grammars that cause it to appear alive.
The technology and everything else is constantly redefining the center. You can’t go forward and you can’t stand still. Thunder don’t get you, then the lightnin’ will.
What I’m really interested in is watching the cultural evolution of the relationship to machines. The way that we have a false story about the way that machines will come alive. That’s the mainstream story. That’s the AI story. That there is a priesthood of elect minds that, using a certain kind of game (the Turing Test), can scientifically prove that these are intelligent. Now, that’s such a cock-ass way of thinking about it, it’s hilarious. It’s just totally stupid. Because the judgment of intelligence occurs within this complex social field that’s full of all of these different dimensions. It’s not a judgment that arises in that fashion. And long before they get to that, everyday people are going to live in a reality where there are these forms of intelligence/life that will appear to them in the way that they perform of them. Doesn’t matter what their ontology is. We’ll never know whether they’re intelligent or not. It’ll just be—
Yes. What to make of being beaten by a chess program, you know? I mean, you certainly don’t assume that you’ve been displaced by another intelligence. On the other hand, you’ve been beaten soundly. So…
There’s a wonderful example in the third game of that match where Deep Blue—and I don’t know chess at all; zippadoo—but Deep Blue did something, and Kasparov described it as being: “Before, I was playing a machine. Then I was playing with an opponent.” It was surprising. All the chess wizards watching were like, “Whoa! What the fuck was that?” And that was the game. And when you describe this man who otherwise is very much in the mindset of the AI world, in the sense that intelligence is a kind of mathematical game that can be tested—still a rather elite definition of intelligence—that even in that world there is this emotional, competitive relationship that makes the other or constructs the other as alive. And that’s just so funny: the whole ontology doesn’t make a fucking difference. It’s going to be in people’s lives and minds.
Yes, Kasparov said he sensed an other. He sensed a more deeply scheming mind than simply something which understood the rules of chess. There was an entelechy. It sounded quite freaky. And then he lost; within six moves it was hopeless.
But it’s funny because you can imagine, then, how that would happen mechanically, also, is that you build up a system of information processing. And from the other person’s perspective, how you produce the display is unimportant. It’s just this magical display. That would be a great prank
Well, it would be a wonderful thing to put some coding time [???]. It would be the equivalent of the Martian invasion of Orson Welles.
Welles! That’s a very great [???]. What would you do? Let’s say you were going to do that—what would you do? What would be the meat of it?
Well, it depends on your political agenda. I mean, I can imagine beginning to turn off military machinery around the planet and just pull air bases, ships at sea, all this stuff, just shutting down.
But even that, though—you can imagine that producing more violence than keeping—
Anything else you could imagine!
Because it’s like this absolutely dense system of interlocking power. Like the social space is full on a globalizing world. You imagine if drastic things happen at any point in this network, the whole network will respond. That’s why we’re so teetering on the edge.
Well, then what you would really do is: you would move slowly. That’s the thing. A stealth strategy. So titanium extraction, production of fissionable materials. You begin to move these things a few tenths of a percentage point off their marks over periods of months and months, hoping that, over five years, six years, you could back away from the various forms of the abyss.
That’s one thing you talked about when you were talking about the moving image that intrigued me. You mentioned the discovery of the unconscious of dreams, which is by definition a world of fluctuating images, psychedelia, and film. And, by extension, you can talk about animation. But it is interesting the way that, if you leave aside the different ontological spaces where these things occur, you are pointing towards some similar logic of flowing images that are pregnant with something more than simply the surfaces and images.
Well, you looked at that thing about the film objects, right? Yeah. That was very interesting, I thought. Deconstruct film in that particular way.
What is it about that seems kind of rich?
Well, it stresses the role of time in defining all these situations. I mean, a film object is best applied, obviously, to film. But on the other hand, you and I are like that, or an automobile in traffic, or investment over a decade is still some kind of self-transforming thing: referent to its own structure but constantly redefining itself. And that’s very… the world is its own film, the world is its own kinetic unfolding. And if you take that away, then you don’t have a world.
If you look at what we’re building with VR, what’s just around the corner with these kind of three-dimensional interactive spaces and avatars. Imagine a culture that’s more and more based on that kind of interaction. And obviously there’s a kind of superficial shamanic or imaginative dimension to that, but at the same time it’s clear that—at least initially, and certainly in many of its guises—it will be driven by the same kind of chintzyness, the same sort of crass, tinkly, junk that really drives…. Do you think it’s just going to naturally evolve such that a kind of deeper shamanic world, or at least shamanic analogue, will emerge in virtual reality, or does it actually require some real creative work to seed it?
It requires creative work. It requires that the people who build these realities understand how subtle what they’re up against is. And not abandon a commitment to realism. You know, the trick to making the shamanic virtual world compelling is to fairly and truly convey it. So you can’t cut corners. You can’t fake it. So animation, and the rules of VRML and all this stuff, have to be faithfully executed so that this stuff really does blow people’s minds. So that people see the human imagination is large enough to accommodate the human soul. It doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re wearing too tight a pair of shoes.
And that’s the danger: it just becomes kind of a…
Formulaic. Too formulaic. Too easy. Not that the software couldn’t use some improvement, but I don’t want it to become so easy to produce these virtual realities that there’s no attention to detail, or no sense of accomplishment in doing it.
What would the ideal Terence McKenna virtual environment be?
Well, all of these—I guess you would call them models or explanations—beginning with basic chemistry right up to hierarchy and management theory. Because all these processes can be envisioned as interlocking sets of laws and that sort of thing. So that’s, I guess, what we’re talking about. Is: how the world should become more visual, should ride more on a vocabulary of visual assumptions that everybody has learned. We all know that a Bugs Bunny cartoon is a land of explosions and falling anvils. Well, we learn that, we were taught that. So there needs to be more of this kind of slotting in of… I don’t know what you would call it. Assumptions or Gestalts that can be used as a vocabulary to communicate this stuff.
A visual language? So do you see that some languages from the past—the imagery of alchemy, or Egyptian art, or things like that—can be seen as predecessors for a possible new visual language?
Well, this is where memory palaces and archetypes and all this stuff come in. That was always the hope. It’s not clear it can be realized. I mean, that’s why you go through the Maya, the Egyptian, the alchemical, looking for these universal Gestalts of meaning. But they’re spread wide and far. And it may have to be created de novo.
Well, that’s part of the—a more skeptic would say the idea of building a universal language is an old and crusty dream, and when you get into the realm of actually having images involved in it in a kind of hieroglyphic virtual space that are linked with meaning, that it becomes even more challenging to imagine how you can make that kind of thing universal—unless it’s the universe of the Nike swoosh. It’s the universe of logos and advertising which actually is somewhat like this, except that its information content is…
People spend a huge amount of money to establish these Gestalts, yes. Yeah. So I’m not—many of our discussions have led to this point where we seem to say: well, there’s something about the thermodynamics about information that we don’t understand. Something about lexical categories. Something about how language wants to emerge from the background of matrix, but something about how we process language holds this back. So then there’s a negotiation at some kind of fractal edge. And that’s where we are. But not necessarily. I mean, that’s why I encourage everybody to think about animation and think about it in practical terms: to look at objects and pose these things to themselves as modelable problems. Because out of that will come a language rich enough to support an actual form of human communication that’s been very elusive, or maybe never in hand at all.
Well, it’s really interesting when you talk to people or listen to people how many people who take psychedelics have cartoon-like encounters with beings. And you say gee, this is weird. Cartoons only go back to 1920 or 1915. How weird that such an out there technical phenomenon could just grab a whole section of human psychology and camp there with that kind of tenacity. And to me that indicates it has some kind of archetypal claim on that territory. And a claim which it can only continue to tighten over time.
Have you ever seen that Scott McCloud book Understanding Comics? That’s worthwhile. Yes, it’s really worthwhile. Very good. I mean, it’s just sort of getting at a grammar. You know, a lot of cartoons disagree [???] lot of comic people are like [???]. But it’s a very interesting attempt to use the form itself to talk about the specifics of the form. It’s really about comic art, but it applies to some of these issues of animation and cartooning.
Well, the great genius of Disney—and Disney is my idea beyond Edison or Ford or anybody of what we really mean by an American genius, because he had mice who wear gloves living inside his head, but he was able to create a mechanical technology to show people these mice. So instead of just being put quietly away by his brother or something like that, he said, “No, no, you don’t understand. Money! This is worth money! If we can show people these glove-wearing mice and talking ducks and all this stuff.” And then he was sufficiently a true American yankee genius that he saw how to take a flipbook and put it on celluloid and do all that. Yeah, I think Disney is a very, very far out person. He went to the platonic ideas and came back with baskets full of them, and released them in American towns and cities, and did very well.
I mean, animation is a great place to see the reflection of things that are happening in the culture at large.
And certain people take it to incredible heights. Have you seen—do you know that animation called Asparagus? You should check it out. Maybe it’s 15 or 20 years old, but it’s very highly detailed, as realistic as a Van Eyck painting. And totally surreal. And there’s also—do you know that one by Sally Cruikshank called Quasi at the Quackadero? That’s a DMT extravagance; a carnival, basically. A cartoon about carnival. But it’s a carnival crazy enough to convince you you should go take drugs, basically. And Max Fleischer was a genius. And all these people.
Fleischer was great. I think Fleischer is the true origin of underground comics. I think that you find the most pregnant images of a certain kind of seedy—like the way that Krum presents a certain kind of seediness and sort of failure of the bodies and spaces. And yet that’s infused with a kind of magical eye. So you really have that both in flesh, and you really have the mania of the Betty Boop, and also a certain real kind of quotidian, almost proletarian, graininess to these characters. It’s very [???].
Yeah. It would be very hard to imagine postmodernity without Krum’s input. I consider him an absolute psychedelic genius. Very few people have had the influence without the karma that Krum had. He basically did all that stuff, sold the drawings, and moved to a château in southern France, and called it quits, and got away with those moves.
That’s one of the things I just found totally fascinating: the magic of modernity.
You mean: what a strange, strange thing this is?
Yeah. Just the relationship of modernity to esoteric religious undercurrents and things which are not accounted for in enlightenment discourse.
Yeah, what if it just gets more and more like this? In other words: I think that’s what’s actually happening. We’re really headed for our own private Idaho. More, faster, deeper, and with more panache than anybody ever dared suppose.
You mean in terms of building our own constructed world perspectives and communicating them to some degree, but not in a way that dominates ideologically or…
Well, and we have no idea how strange the worlds we can create in the near term will be. And yet they will be. It’s coming at you.
Right. But just how far back to go? Like, what’s witnessing this bizarre moment in history? What point is the perspective kind of sitting in? That’s the part I find really hard to figure out. Does that make sense?
Well, that’s the question. Because what that boils down to is: how real is it? How real is it? Yeah, it’s complicated. Every age seems to design its own image of its own dissolution. And they happen over and over again. I mean, when I think about the 20th century, Europe—which is the source of world civilization—stomped flat twice, millions of refugees, Auschwitz, the whole thing. Meanwhile, what went on in the Far East of Asia and the Asian prosperity wars and all this. It’s over and over again, these cultures create their [???], and act it out. Way over the top. I mean, Germany, for cryin’ out loud!
Yeah, so, how would you describe that character? What’s the character of our dissolution?
I don’t know. I guess it was Nietzsche who pushed the myth of the eternal return, right? So it’s some kind of… it’s like a closed cycle of Hegelian dynamic, where it just works itself out. Then the thesis, the antithesis, the synthesis, and the darkness. And then it starts over again.
That Nichols book I told you about, Living Time—what was most impressive about that book was: he lays out this idea of time, and basically kind of presents a way of thinking about eternal return, which is that we’re locked into these repetitive cycles that are eternally reiterating themselves. The only way of changing their quality is to increase consciousness in the midst of them. And so you affirm this life, this world—not some transcendent word, and just the…
And then try to solve it.
Like, under the sign of this is always this way. And how does it need to relate to the real as it presents itself, as if there’s no other thing that can be than that. But as you do this process, you change your relationship to this stream, and then all this other heady stuff happens. But it was very interesting. It was like—because up to that point, I’d always thought of the eternal return on a kind of philosophical level, and I never thought, “What does it mean to actually live in the world of the eternal return.” And that’s pretty heady.
That’s interesting. Yeah, well, I’ve always felt that reality was a kind of… that the way you made progress was you grasped it. In the sense that you grasp a mathematical or geometric proposition, or something like that. That it’s something which, once understood on some level, clears the way to advance a very short distance. So that’s what you’re always trying to do: is create this lexical space of presumed understanding, and live inside that.
What are some of your wilder ideas about technological situations? [???] there be any technology are lying ahead?
Should you have any? Well, the vision I always saw as inevitable—and I still do, and I’m very attracted to it, and shall be sigh to miss it if I do—and that is: I can imagine the next century defined by huge spacecraft that cycle from the inner to the outer solar system. That seems to me the way to do it. To create these worlds which have, say, 80-year orbits that carry them clear out to Uranus and all these places, and to the inner solar system. And that these things are just self-constructed hives of human activity, and they invent their own raison dêtre at each point in these voyages. And there’s travel between them, but largely they are city-sized, or larger constructs. And that that must be how it will work: powdering down asteroids and….
I would really like to see a breakout in the next century. How long can we wait for starflight? I mean, how long before the contradictions in terrestrial existence just become too tearing, and you either have to go to some kind of fascism and really turn the screws, or things fly to pieces, you know? But I really always felt, as a science-fiction fan and all that, that galactic citizenship was what you’re aiming for. And even if you’re the only fucking citizen, that’s fine. But if you have to go up to the great council of the [Calyxilo (?)], or whatever that shit was. But yeah, this flinging ourselves around the solar system in enormous… that’s obviously all doable. In other words, it doesn’t require a rearrangement of the laws of physics, it just requires that we don’t all murder each other and we continue to pursue commerce. So this is reasonable on some level to expect. And there needs to be—I wish there were a face on Mars, or something like that, that would drag the popular imagination—
But I see strong movements in some levels or an imagination of Mars as a place to inhabit.
It seems like Mars is happening.
But I mean, it’s in the scientific imagination, it’s in the high science fiction imagination. And why not? It’s a pretty cool idea. It’s insane, and it’s like—I wouldn’t go first.
Or ten thousandth, probably! Well, between that and what’s out at the edge of the solar system, it seems to get quite exotic. And as what life is understood to be expands, it’s all converging. I mean, there is mind under the ice of Europa. I don’t know… “mind”… but there’s a lot of complicated and hard to define and edgy shit on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
What do you mean, edgy shit?
Well, like hot water trapped in methane environments under deep ice. You know, there’s this lake—and complicated chemistry. And they’re drilling into this lake in Antarctica that’s under 4,000 meters of ice and has been there 20 million years, and utterly undisturbed in total darkness. This insane geological—and they’re culturing stuff out of it; out of the mud that’s been under there. It’s alive. It’s still alive. So isn’t that bizarre? Yes, exactly. It would be a great time to be a xenobiologist. And it could be Europa, it could be Titan, it could be Mars.
That would just be a—what a fascinating encounter.
Yeah, that’s a great rap.
But that almost seems more likely: we encounter some kind of weird lifeform underneath—but it’s not, “Hi, we are from Orion.”
“And we’re not interested in you. We have no questions, we have no answers.”
This idea has been gaining strength for twenty years; that life is not unique to Earth, it must have drifted in on a chunk of stuff. It’s an alchemical rule. It’s the rule of homogeneity: as above, so below. Given the circumstances as we find them, what rational momentum is there to think that life is unique and arose on this planet only, so….
It’s much easier for me to imagine that, on a certain level, at least the galaxy, or our local part of the galaxy, has some kind of other minds in it. I mean, it may be not true, but it’s almost the same way we model a future. It’s almost like you’ve kind of imagined it. So that all the Star Trek, even, is kind of this weird dress rehearsal for a certain phase of this kind of realization. That’s just a story; just a science fiction story.
Well, but you could’ve said it of Jules Verne in 1885 and in Wright, you know? Yeah. It is a rehearsal.
And, you know, psychedelics kind of seem like, to me, imaginative rehearsal; sort of some other event. And whether that other event is merely my own individual death, or some kind of cosmic event, I completely suspend judgment on it. And I don’t know if I will be able to—I don’t think I’ll move from my present position of: well, who knows?
Yes, it’s the big “who knows”?
So what do you think’s up with the extraterrestrial imagery that features so heavily in some strands of psychedelic experience?
You mean the cat-eyed… that kind of imagery? The cat-eyed alien, grey, pugdy little…
That, and just the sense of—I think it seems like a lot of people just even describe the sense of an extraterrestrial intelligence, or…
Well, remember we were talking last night about how everything wants to articulate itself? Everything wants somehow to communicate and be perceived as language. When that impulse is most clearly separated from its object (or from its source, I guess you could say), then maybe that’s what you get—is this gumby-like, pure impulse toward communication, or something like that. I mean, it seems to me it’s like looking at a pure function, a pure psychological function of some sort. You see what I mean?
No longer rooted in its source, its source being biology and the evolution of physical form on this particular planet. And so that once it reaches a certain kind of—
It can actually walk away from itself, and then there you have it. And you say, “What is this?” It’s category-confounding. It can’t be. It’s an essence without an object, or something like that.
Yeah, I’ve had some pretty profound moments of feeling like contact with something like extraterrestrial intelligence, without believing it, even often in the interior of the trip that it was—
Oh, you mean while loaded?
Yeah. Even at the time I’m going: okay, this is a phenomenon. Yeah. This is a phenomenon occurring, rather than [???], or maybe just sort of geared for science fiction.
So how real was it?
Well, I mean, maybe it’s just the language that I use for “other.” If you present me with some kind of intelligence or communicating force that seems to be other, that’s very high, very evolved, that maybe I’m just going to tend to see it more as alien. But even in terms of those buzzes, like the kind of weird way that sounds can form these vibrating matrices, they often take on a kind of metallic quality and become more synthetic, and with that rising begin to enter an imagery realm that’s very peculiar. It is peculiarly alien and technological, often, as opposed to natural.
Uh-huh. That’s the place!
And that’s like a lens or something. Because if you imagine history pouring forward, or moving rapidly forward, there’s a kind of front edge that’s very weird because it’s sort of like birthing a whole sets of new—yeah, like foam. Exactly.
I know that place.
What is the nature of the entities? What constitutes their apparent agency or communicative agency?
Well, I think that’s the question that remains unanswered. You know, that’s the grail of the thing: what is the nature of the others, is basically what you’re asking. Is it a construct? A projection? Or a discovery? It’s not clear to me what it is.
Do you feel like you’ve gotten any closer tho them?
It’s probably a discovery, which is the most radical conclusion. I mean, I think that’s probably what you think, too, based on your description of your DMT trip and all that. That ultimately it is irreducible. It is too weird to tell.
I don’t know whether it was a C. M. Kornbluth star, but it was all about these aliens come by, and contact the United Nations, and all this. But somehow this book, To Serve Man, comes to the surface. And then it slowly realized that it’s a cookbook! And this really spoils the part!
What about the communications that come in from either the “extraterrestrial” or the technological one?
Well, obviously it requires discrimination to figure out. You can’t believe everything you hear. The demons are many kinds. Some are made of ions, some of mind. The ones of DMT you’ll find stutter often and are blind. Just because something can talk doesn’t mean it isn’t selling you something you may not want to have.
Right. Now, that time, in that phrase, you said the ones on DMT. But I’ve also heard you say ketamine. The ones on ketamine.
Have I said that about ketamine? We need to control me a little more tightly!
What is your opinion on ketamine?
I think it’s an interuterine memory drug. I think there are things about it that cause you to recapture some kind of interuterine state. It’s echoic. It’s weightless. It cancels the sense of gravity, so you don’t feel your lungs rising and falling. I sort of agree with you. I see its fascination. I would not want to become embroiled in its tentacles, because it seems to me a little too easy, a little too fascinating.
Do you think ketamine is hollower partly because it’s just a synthetic, and it hasn’t emerged in the ancient matrix of the biosphere?
No, I think one of the interesting unanswered questions is: why do these chemicals have the characters that they do? Why do they have these personalities? Why is there Mayan imagery inside mushrooms and mescaline, and this and that? And so ketamine’s character is simply somehow conferred from whatever strange dimension this is that sends these drugs their personalities. It certainly is an interesting personality. And Lilly is—John is a juggernaut. Do you know him? Oh my god. John’s such a trip. I mean, some people are just…
You see, but he’s like, I mean, he’s really kind of out. Like, you meet him, and you know this guy is out!
Oh, definitely. Yeah, this guy—there’s nobody home. This guy cannot be left alone at home. He’s like me! What a trip! And such an amazing arrogance, and amazing conviction of your own… that you’ve got it all figured out, you know? Yeah. A relentless character. He told me once, we were at Esalen, just the two of us standing somewhere, and he said: “Nature loves you ruthlessly.” And I thought, “Well, that’s an interesting observation. This ruthlessly [???].”
Was he speaking specifically about you?
Yeah. He and I were the only two people present. It was just a private conversation. He used to have this Obi-Wan Kenobi robe that he wore around Esalen that was just hilarious! And he would just show up out of the fog, you know, to lay these raps on you. Yeah. They didn’t make too many of John.
Ketamine actually distills a certain element of the psyche, and then just lets that element interact with this whole weird plane. And there’s not a lot of connection with the animal body. But the tryptamines are carrying the animal body all the way through it all. So it’s all still archaic, and there’s sex, and there’s fear, and all of these—the animals in this space. Ketamine is like a little drop of like awareness, pure awareness, into this zone. And you’re completely—if you remember things in your life that are all part of these networks of cosmic cause, and they’re so impersonal. I mean, it’s a very impersonal environment.
Sometimes, on ketamine, I had the impression it’s like this all the time. I simply don’t notice. Which isn’t a very sense-making perception, but….
Yeah. It does have an always already quality to it. The whole quality of [???] is very different than with [???], which have a more propulsive, changing, transforming—
Yeah, you’re right about how it accentuates the animal body and just shows you some kind of hyper-state of, I don’t know, being.
Or even metabolism.
Yeah, something like that. Where it’s just a 50,000 percent more powerful than you thought the specs would tolerate.
What do you think of MDMA?
It never spun me like it apparently did other people. It seemed very pleasant. I didn’t quite ever get the fight to save MDMA and all that. I figured, from what I was hearing around me, that it was doing a lot of good in psychotherapy, and so those people should be supported. But personally I never… it seemed very much like every drug as it’s introduced to society. It’s usually claimed to solve relationship problems, and then—well, that’s the best packaging: is to say that a drug solves relationship problems.
Of course, linked to that, right at the top, was the warning that you could believe that you were deeply involved with somebody, or them making stupid decisions.
Well, when was that not true?
No, I remember the first time. I mean, that was specifically one of the stories that was told. And that was relatively early.
You mean people deciding to marry the wrong person?
Or whatever, yeah. That kind of thing. Had such an intimate experience. I only had a few. I only took it a few times. I find it extremely taxing to my system, in a way that I—
Oh, you mean the next day you feel terrible?
Yes. Yeah, I find it very taxing in a way that makes me very dubious about its—
It’s an amphetamine. It’s hard to take the “a” out of amphetamine.
Yeah, it’s true. The amphetamine down is really quite a monster. I actually like crystal methedrine, but it’s not worth it.
It just wears you to hard.
Yeah. It’s too hard. Just like—it’s fun, but it’s…
Every gear is flopping on its axle by the time you’re through. Yeah.
Do you have a position about the relationship of the psychedelic experience to non-psychedelic mysticism?
Oh, I think I see what you’re trying to get at. Some kind of—what’s the platonic connection to the psychedelic experience?
That’s one way of thinking of that.
Yeah, in that sense, yeah. I mean, maybe we need to ask the question over again, but the psychedelic vision is of some kind of relevant thing. It isn’t just the equivalent of a dust bunny under your psychic bed, or something like that. It’s actually a product of the… well, then it’s hard to English it, but a product of the fractal laws that govern information theory. That’s a theme that Neal Stephenson and all these people understand. That it really is all about how everything is put together at the informational level. There’s no deeper truth. And so all this talk about code, and virtual reality, and how the portions of our reality might be code running in some way, and all of this—this is all, I think, trying to get at something about information theory that needs to be fundamentally understood before we can all together take the next step to the next level.
What’s the relationship between what’s happening with these information networks and this kind of object, or matrix, or fecund hyper-dimensional—
You mean: how does our own cyberspatial technology relate to the presence of this neoplatonic ur-object of…? Well, that sounds like this dialogue you want to get in on with the garland of letters or the Kabbalah—I mean, mathematics is somehow this web of something which holds nature together and seems to spring out of a higher mind of some sort. I mean, mathematics is really what it’s all about when you finally get it sliced thin, I think. And that makes sense, platonically and from this neoplatonic thing, you know? And by neoplatonic I mean Proclus and Plotinus and those people who came about 500 years late after Christ. Yeah.
Have you been to Ravenna? That’s where they have these mosaics that are—because it was basically a theory of pixelation. It was an elemental theory. So they were tiny, pure, undividable elements of essence that went together to produce phenomena. Well, all those people came out around the end of the sixth or early seventh century. It was Plotinus, Proclus, Porphyry. Yeah, Plotinus. He had the right idea. And, you know, it was late gnosticism, so all this star magic and really wild theories of stellar… well, it was when the Hermetic Corpus was settling nicely into position. All of those doctrines of calling down the voices and all that.
Do you think we’re in some sense in a structurally resonant position vis-à-vis late antiquity?
Let me think about that for a minute. Well, always, in some degree, because these fractal things are just endlessly echoing and reechoing inside the structure of time. But yeah, what we share with that era is a kind of fundamentally existential confusion about what’s going on. So doubt itself becomes a philosophical position. Which, in fact, all doubt means is: I’m shopping, thank you! You know what I mean?
What about that sense of this matrix, this network?
This thing you mine for language? Yeah, I sort of see it like that. That there’s something that all the metaphors of alchemy—which are locating the deposit, extracting, concentrating, alloying, fabricating—apply to this enterprise of language and literature and art. And clearly that’s basically what it’s all about. And you have to get in there somehow, to the main vein. And once you’re there it’s just pure lógos. And that’s the way I’ve always gotten at it. I figure that’s the way the really smart money gets at it. The Melville, the Joyce, these voices that you find.
…are somehow channeling closer to that—from a position closer to that matrix? Or whatever.
Yeah. And that that’s what real channeling is: is getting close to that kind of…
To that [???]. I mean, that’s the thing that’s so wrong about the—I didn’t really get this totally explicitly—but about a lot of channeled material is that I have no doubt that you can set yourself up into a psychic information network, wherein you (human ego at this point in history) are aware or become aware of the presence of another personality and voice, which then you bring through and write down. I’m not saying nothing about ontology, about perception and psychology. But the thing is that the stuff that gets transmitted, so much of it is so bad and so literalistic and so—because it’s not actually close to that. Because that is so rich with…
It’s because, as you say, it’s too easy. You know? You have no doubt people can do it, and you’re right. They can do it. And so then, what you get is C+ material.
Have you ever seen an image of the letters that were on golden plates?
The Mormon books? Sure.
Yeah, the Brody book, they have them reproduced. And it’s just that whole notion of these highly compressed scripts. I mean, if you imagine like this thing we were talking about in psychedelic space, of this kind of matrix of possible languages or possible logics, which then end up kind of fleshing out into all sort of other stuff. That there must be languages that are farther upstream that we can’t really capture in full, left-brain, alphabet-parsing mind. It’s a little challenging for that mind. And yet, it still has the character of a language. It’s like the Hebrew alphabet. That mystical idea of an alphabet.
No, Ralph and I have talked about stuff like this; about—you probably know or have heard of this guy, Stan Tenen? Well, he is into this thing where he has this shape, and as you illuminate it from different angles you get different Hebrew letters cast as shadows. So Ralph said this implied, then, that there was this hyper-object which cast all these shadows. And he said, given sufficient computing power, you could compute upstream (as you say) toward higher-dimensional objects that would eventually shed all shadows of all letters in all languages, and that there would actually be a kind of Omega object, or something, that was the source of all meaning. So this thing you and I were talking about last night, or today, about mining the veins of organized entelechy, or whatever, relate to this concept of this gnosis-shedding hyper-object that is somewhere up in the imperium.
I find that Kabbalistic stuff pretty evocative.
Well, it relates to this kind of letter stuff. I really think—I had experiences leading up to the thing at La Chorrera, when I was young, that just seemed to imply that sound was it, and that you could do things with sound, with your voice; that it was all natural stuff. Everything up to probably splitting the atom, if you knew how to do it.
So do you subscribe kind of, at least loosely, to the idea that behind a lot of religious and mystical literature, at some level of depth, lies psychedelic experience produced through ingesting of some kind of psychoactive substance?
Well, I think so. And I think more so since I’ve had cancer. Because I had no idea that such peculiar states of mind were naturally available to people and non-lethal. In other words, that you could have fairly frequent brain seizures and experience very bizarre states of body-mind dislocation, and have it not kill you. So now I see that the spectrum of human experience is a lot broader than I previously imagined.
Because then imagine all of the chemical conditions under which people have—
Over a million years…
You know, not just drugs, diet, temperament, genetics.
And now this. All these various things. It turns out the mind is far more malleable than it is… it’s easier to—well, what am I trying to say here? I’m trying to say the mind can adjust to a great deal more than that which simply kills it. And so as people make their way through these states of mind—induced by brain architecture, cancer, diet, drugs, genetics, whatever—there’s a much broader human database than I realized.
Well, other than the seizure itself that you’ve kind of described to me—and I guess the drugs you’re on now in terms of waking up with these completely bizarre things—what are some of the other really unusual mind states that you found yourself in since this all began?
Well, they’re hard to describe. Like, one kind is—I call it losing categories, where it’ll become an enormous effort to decide whether there should be one or two of something, something completely trivial. But this one or two thing indicates to me some kind of lexical break, or some kind of peculiar… I mean, it’s hard to English, but you see what I mean?
I love the idea that you came up with; the idea [???] another number—
Oh, that I discovered a whole number between three and five, or something, that had previously been overlooked? That was a funny idea. But mostly it’s some very hard to communicate idea about how concepts form these things called lexical objects that are like topologically closed, so they can’t really be cross-related. So all understanding becomes a kind of illusion of some sort.
Wow! That’s kind of intense.
Yeah, it is a weird idea.
Well, now that I have all these medical problems with brain and brain function, I have a much greater appreciation for the boundaries of eccentricity. I mean, now I understand: it doesn’t take drugs. There are a lot of people running around who are crazy as shithouse owls, and are achieving it on the natch! And their testimony now has to be weighed as well. So this surprises me. I didn’t realize it. You know, a malfunctioning brain could leave you functioning enough to report to work and tell your story and presumably write novels and meet deadlines and all these other things, you know, that people do. And I don’t know how many other people realize this, either.
Because that’s sort of how you feel?
Yeah. I mean, I now live in a world defined by pretty much prescribed drugs, and my doctors are telling me I have to take this stuff to stay alive, basically. So how many people are living in worlds psychologically defined that way? Quite a lot.
You seem to be largely Terence. You know?
Well, I recall who I’m supposed to be, so we’re not trading that into [???]!
But in some fundamental sense, do you feel like you’re standing on a different ball?
I would like to get all these drugs out of my system—the depakote and the steroids and all that—because it makes mentally moving on a level surface feel like walking uphill. And these are mild drugs I take. I mean, these are not—what about the people who’ve been diagnosed schizophrenic, or bipolar this, or something. What are these people taking, and what is it making them think about reality?
You’ve taken serotonin reuptake inhibitors, haven’t you?
You mean like Prozac? Yeah. But those are designed to help you out. These other things, all you deal with is side effects. It’s a different thing.
Oh yeah, yeah. I thought you were talking about—schizophrenia, don’t they treat it with all sorts of neurotransmitter modulating drugs which presumably are there to help them out?
Well, there to help them out. They may be there to help the rest of us out, you know? Like, for instance, this drug I take: depakote. The first thing that it supposedly deals with is mania. Well, I’m taking a drug for mania? I don’t have mania—do I? Did I? Would I? Should I? Will I? Could I? Do I want to? And so forth and so on.
He didn’t tell you you had any bit of mania in you before?
At times I’ve been accused to mania, but by idiots! And I guess because of the war on drugs, somewhat concealed in all that, is the willingness of the establishment to allow experimentation with drugs, the effect of which on tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people would have social consequences that were maybe unintended or unmanaged. Yeah. Yeah.
Yeah, I’ll say!
Like, I’ve wondered, the statistic you hear: Prozac is the most prescribed drug in the world now. A billion people take Prozac or something like that.
Is it really?
It’s something like that.
Oh my god!
So my question is: when do the rest of us get some of the benefit of this? In other words, when is the guy putting my fruit in my sack going to become a more pleasant person? The guy pumping gas? All these people on Prozac. Pretty soon it should begin to feed into the body politic as a sort of feeling of goodwill and temperance. But I haven’t actually seen it.
But yes, I would like to live for quite a while longer. But it is very interesting: cancer as a metaphor for modern life, and how people live, how they think about their politics, and diet, and money, and all of the rest of it. And probably my generation was more exposed to toxins than any other in history. Because there were not only all the toxins of the pre-modern world, but then all the plastics, adhesives, and so forth.
Well, it seems so basic that cancer is a socially, physically constructed metaphor for all these other processes that are happening at different levels. It’s almost like that plane of the real responds with an appropriate kind of metaphor for all these processes of inflation, and kind of negentropy-burning development.
The revenge of matter, or something. Yeah. Or the revenge of synthetic matter.
What is your prognosis?
Ah. Well, it’s a little hard to figure out. I think it’s—well, it depends on the doctor you believe. The doctor who just did the surgery said he got it all. He has an incredible reputation, like third best in the world or something, with survival rates and all that. So maybe he did get it all, in which case I’m the same—I just have to get strong. On the other hand, the survival rate for this shit is very low. Zilch in some people’s opinion. They say there’s no escape. There’s always [???], they always return. You can only have so many craniotomies. So those people say six months to a year of life, which is really a drag to take on board. My own intuition is: I’m not sure. I can’t tell what is going on. It certainly is a weird situation to have fall upon you, especially a person like myself. I’ve never been a sick person or concerned with any of this. I had no idea there was so much morbidity around me. As Dante: “I had not thought death had undone so many,” he says when he looks into the inferno. It’s a sobering thought. So that’s it. And what you do is: you constantly try to get stronger and hope that no bad news comes down the pike, and…
Do you feel more intimate with death?
Oh, absolutely. No, you spend every waking minute—well, I don’t know… every waking minute—but for the past six months, let us say, death has been a daily accompaniment of my thoughts. And dying is the more troubling subject. Death is the great “who knows.” Dying, on the other hand, might be unpleasant, prolonged, has a terrible effect on the people around you, and…
Full of fear and pain.
And misapprehension, you know?
Well, people don’t know what it is, so they don’t know what they’re looking at. Are they losing you? Are you passing to the great meaning, culmination, and answer to it all? Or are you on extended wing downward into darkness? And it really plays people
The internal subjective perception of the shutdown of the nervous system at death—I think that’s a really interesting question.
You mean: to what degree are these things different and similar?
Yeah. That in some ways, what happens with both psychedelic and mystical visionary experience and certain relationships to apocalyptic form, to the end of the world, where things are transforming. There’s a point where the self dies. And it might happen in a millisecond, but subjectively it would be the end of the world.
Yeah, and because I think everything works basically the same way, it would have a fair profundity. Because you would be seeing the primal assembly language code.
But the whole idea of psychedelics as a rehearsal for that kind of event.
Yeah, it’s like Buddhism with turbocharge, or something. Now you can…
Run through the bardo. Or a bardo.
Take the Diamond Sutra for a spin!
How does one live your life in the shadow of such an event? You know? What does it mean to live in the shadow of a different kind of culmination? Or how does one live in a post-human—
Well, maybe that’s how you actually can change your existential morè. That’s what you deal with. That’s the peg you move, is this image of your own fate or end of life or what exactly all this stuff is worth to you. And as you move that around, you see things differently.
How has a lifetime of psychedelic use, an adult lifetime, teenage, sort of set you up for facing death?
Well, I guess it leads you to the idea that things are probably more complicated than you can suppose. Therefore, supposition is not to be trusted. So, in other words, given how weird life has been, why rush to prejudge death? It’s bound to be mighty strange. Life was mighty strange. And I’m curious, you know? I don’t think anybody would be curious. I mean, it’s an interesting situation to be told that you have a very limited amount of life left, because it composes your mind for you—wonderfully. And you start paying attention, asking the questions. And I have no insight into what it will be, but I suspect it isn’t what anybody thinks it is. I mean, the argument that nature has this desire to preserve form is, I think, self-evident on enormous scales of space and time and very local scales of space and time. So why fight it? It must be that, somehow, matter is spiritualizing itself, or mathematicizing itself, or somehow…
Right. Becoming virtual forms.
So—and what psychedelics show is that the world is full of surprises. I mean, I consider psychedelics a constant and verifiable miracle; the fact that that can happen to your mind. So it means all kinds of things are possible. Nothing is to be assumed or pre-judged, given, A: biology, B: psychedelics and culture. Probably that’s a long enough list. But those two things alone secure the weirdness of being sufficiently.
We can call it quits. It’s late.
You should get your rest, Terence.
Yes, I should. We all should!