The Winter King


This talk was recorded during the time that Terence McKenna and Sheldon Rocklin were filming the Coincidencia Oppositorum: A Union of Opposites documentary for Mysic Fire.



I was here about five years ago with Tim Leary one raucous evening. Maybe some of you managed to catch that event. This is a little more thoughtful and reflective. I’m not here to talk or to speak or to promote my books, as I have been in the past. This is the only public event that I’m doing in these ten days, and I’m very grateful to David and Patrick for inviting me. This is a wonderful facility, and bringing you plants and books and information—it’s great to see the freak community is alive and well in Mannheim.


What I’m in Europe to do is to be part of a film-making effort, and I want to describe the project to you a little bit—simply because it’s what’s on my mind, naturally—and to discuss the politics behind the making of this kind of a film. It’s not a film about rave culture, it’s not a film about Albert Hofmann, it’s not a film about body piercing, or any of these things that great films need to be done about and have been done about. It’s about one of your local heroes, who is a great hero of mine, and should be a great hero to all freaks in Germany and everywhere. And I’m talking about Frederick V, Elector Palatine, Prince of Heidelberg, King of Bohemia. Are you all familiar with this guy who—no? Oh! Well… this is your guy! This is the prototypic freak of this area, and a freak who was not content to sit back and let things happen, but was willing to launch a grand alchemical dream of a reformation of human society.


So just to lay in the background for those of you who are not familiar: the historical incident that we’re here to recreate (here and later in Prague) has to do with the Prince Palatine of Heidelberg, a protestant who wedded the granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth I, Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of James I of England. This was an arranged wedding. They were both sixteen years old at the time. Frederick went to England, the wedding was held in England, and then he returned with his very English bride to Heidelberg. And they were the center of a movement of alchemical reformation and revolution that sought to take the Protestant Reformation an enormous leap forward into a new world of spiritual freedom and—to my mind—a very sort of psychedelic world. They were the heirs, the inheritors, of the entire Medieval worldview. It was folded into this pair of sixteen-year-olds who were ruling the Palatinate of Heidelberg. And Frederick was an elector, meaning he was one of the seven princes who could choose the Emperor of what remained of the Holy Roman Empire at that time. And he conspired to become the King of Bohemia.

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—visionaries moved the entire court from Heidelberg, from the small-time scene of a principality, to Prague to reoccupy the office of the Holy Roman Empire with an emperor friendly to magic and alchemy, who was the inheritor of a generation-old plan to create an alchemical reformation that had been hatched in the mind of the English alchemist and mathematician John Dee.


And the ending of the story is not a happy ending—or perhaps it is; I mean, we can talk about that. On a superficial level, this alchemical dream, this Rosicrucian enlightenment, ended badly because the Habsburgs back in Madrid quickly got wind of what was going on, and got an army together and sent it to Prague and laid siege to Prague, and Elizabeth fled to the Netherlands with her children. Frederick was defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain, and the alchemical dream died. And this was really, in some sense, the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War. And, as you know, going into the Thirty Years’ War, Europe was a place of popes and kings. At the end of the Thirty Years’ War it was a place ruled by parliaments and peoples, and the entire Medieval world was swept away, and out of the new political dispensation of the situation at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, especially in England, modern science took hold and was born. And these angel-dealing, horoscope-casting, alchemy-pursuing visionaries of this Rosicrucian renaissance became simply objects of historical curiosity. Completely incomprehensible to the people who followed them, generation after generation after generation—until, I submit to you, the present.


And in the present moment we, like they, inherit a world whose ideologies are exhausted and can only be refreshed from the margins. And that was what this whole alchemical revolt was about. It was about a suppressed marginal minority of deeply pietistic original thinkers—but heterodox: non-Christian—keeping together a tradition that I think has been reborn or rediscovered in our own time. And it’s the tradition that nature is a great distillery of complexity. Alchemical gold, novelty, connection (whatever you want to call it) in our own time—through integrative sciences like ecology and animal behavior and psychology we have re-understood what was forgotten during the reductionist centuries of modern science. We’ve re-understood that the world is one thing, and it’s a living thing. It’s a thing with an intent and a spirit within it.


And this is the key concept. The concept that the alchemists and the hermetic dreamers and the occultists of the alchemical and northern European renaissance—they were trying to strengthen and condense and distill and make actual this sense of community, this spiritas. Well then, with the rise of modern science, all of that is anathema, and rational analysis tells us that matter is simply atoms flinging themselves through space, obedient to certain mathematical laws that are invariant. And all the creativity, all the sense of connectedness that we experience as living beings, as members of a society, as human beings in contemplation of nature, all of that was denied. And it reaches its ultimate culmination—just as an example—in the kind of statements such as was made by Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist, who said, “Nature is mute.”


You understand what I mean? Nature gives no clue, he tells you. Man is alone in the cosmos with his complexes and his obsessions. He confers meaning. There is no a priori reality to which ethics or intent can be attached. I reject this. I think the entire message of the psychedelic experience—which is basically the sine qua non of the rebirth of alchemical understanding—the very basis of that understanding is that nature seeks to communicate. All being is pregnant with language. All reality wants to include the human side of nature in its ongoing intent. The problem lies not with nature, but with ourselves. That we are somehow paralyzed, disempowered, doubting, cut from the meat of the thing.


Well, so I’m a great believer in propaganda, obviously. I mean, my whole life is about propaganda. So to take an incident like the career of Frederick the Elector Palatine of Heidelberg and his bride and make of it a kind of exemplar, a parable—a myth, if you will—the myth of the alchemical marriage. A myth that takes innocence and naïveté and belief in the power of ideas to make a new world, and tell that story again in film, backing it with these tremendously powerful alchemical images that Jung and others showed work inexorably on the psyche, whether you wish to be part of the process or not. To merely gaze upon the images of alchemy is to, in a sense, enter into a kind of psycho-analytical process.


Because what alchemy was—and I should stress this or the rap makes no sense at all—alchemy was not the vulgar pursuit of the transmutation of lesser metals into gold or silver. That was the charlatan’s game played in every market in Europe for centuries among the simple people. But the body of symbols and of literature that accreted around the effort to extract a universal medicine out of nature for the transformation of societies and human beings was (in those times) of what we call epistemological naïveté, meaning that they did not have the strong sense of objective and subjective reality, which we inherit from science.


So during those eras of epistemological naïveté, what was someone’s idea about how matter behaves, what was someone’s myth about how psyche behaves, could become entangled in a projective experience with material in a chemical vessel. So the processes which we call melting and crystallization and purification and calcination—processes now well understood through a soulless molecular model of matter—were for them the birth of the red lion, the coming of the double-headed queen, the murder of the hermaphrodite dog, and so forth and so on. They had these outlandish images and outlandish vocabulary because they were trying to create powerful symbols, powerful mnemonic hooks on which to hold the details. And there are many of them of this extremely complex worldview that, were it not for people like Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, would’ve remained completely inexplicable to modern people. It is not chemistry and it is not myth-building per se, as we inherit from the Greeks. It’s a very complicated amalgamation—good alchemical word—of psyche and matter.


And the reason, I think, it is so resonant with our own times is because our generations—generations of people confined within the twentieth century—have in a sense, and by an oblique path, recovered that universal medicine that the alchemists dreamed of by going, strangely enough, to some of the most aboriginal and least culturally assimilated to European and American values, people, in the world. Shamanism is essentially a living tradition of alchemy that is not seeking the stone, but has found the stone. These shamans, these jivaro, these Witoto, these Cubeo—notice that they have this same epistemic naïveté, this inability to distinguish between subjective and objective world through the intercession of Newton and Descartes, that Frederic the Elector and the alchemists around him and the alchemists that preceded them through the centuries had.


In other words, within the context of the alchemical vocabulary, the psychedelic experience (as brought to us through plants long in the possession of aboriginal people) appears to be the identical phenomenon. The jivaro shaman, the Cubeo shaman, does not use a glass retort with cycling sulfur and mercury inside it. The shamans of the Amazon have attained a sufficient sophistication to explicitly understand that the vessel of alchemical transformation is the body and the head of the experient. This is the alchemical vessel, this is where you will encounter the three-headed dog and the queen dissolving in her bath and the incestuous couple that combine soul and Luna to produce the white essence of the panacea of the universal medicine. These are psycho-mental processes.


And Jung, strangely enough—he must’ve been an extraordinary person, because he could approach this without psychedelics through a very careful inspection of the dreams and the symbol-producing processes of his patients. Over decades he produced a kind of skeletal map of the psyche. But I maintain—and that map doesn’t fill itself in, it doesn’t become a living experience until we undergo what is rightly perceived as the alchemical process of dissolution. Dissolution of what? Of the lumpen prima materia of the ego. This is the shit, the tar, the coal, the dark earth of Egypt, the starting material, the loam, the manure, the night soil, the lowest matter. And we start with that—the ego—and dissolve it through the intercession of the spirit. And spirit is a complicated concept. It’s not naïve. It’s phenomenologically difficult to define. But through the dissolving spirit of the plants.


And the plants lift the imprisoning structures of the ego, and the ego flows out into the world. And for some people this produces panic. Panic. Comes from the god Pan, whose screams caused people to go mad. Panic. For other people it’s an enormous liberation. In any case, it is an influx of material previously hidden in the unconscious laden with symbolic meaning, and eventually not to be sustained in this acidic, dissolving, roiling, liquid state. That’s part of the process. But then eventually to be recombined—coagulatio, the recombining, the coagulation, the coming together—at a higher level, usually through the application of a process analogous to heat. But psychic heat, which drives off the dross of false assumptions and false attachments. And all of you who have been through high-dose psychedelic experiences know that it’s very hard to carry stupid baggage through that keyhole. In fact, you’re lucky if you just get your soul and yourself through and intact.


So what we have here through the psychedelics among certain marginal populations in the twentieth century—freaks of all sorts in all times and places within the twentieth century—a kind of almost accidental rediscovery of these alechemical truths. Well, okay, so that’s good. That’s one level we can do self-directed psychotherapy on ourselves with psychedelic substances out of plants, and we can use alchemical symbolism to guide this process, and that’s all very interesting. But so what? I mean, what’s so great about it?


Well, I think one of the most famous alchemical axioms is: as above, so below. Meaning always that in every small part of reality there is a tiny reflection of the great overstructure of reality. And in the largest structures are hidden the secrets of the smallest, and vice versa. We have also rediscovered this principle in the twentieth century through fractal mathematics. But the psychedelics have brought us back to this alchemical mystery. Shorn of any vocabulary for dealing with it, shorn of any real living notion of the spirit. And so we have sought as far afield as the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Freudianism, or there have been various efforts to cast the psychedelic experience one way or another. The hot one now, of course, is shamanism. And I relate to that because I spent a lot of time in the Amazon and with these kinds of people with these kinds of concerns.


But shamanism and alchemy are a seamless enterprise. The connecting figure, if you’re interested in this, between the shaman and the alchemist is the smith, the worker of metal. And the shaman and the smith in primitive cultures are always associated as brother figures. They both work in metals. Well, what all this means for us beyond the commitment to our own ordering, the Wunderkammer of our own private imagination, what it means is important. Because if you look around you, the entire global civilization is undergoing some kind of meltdown. The planet itself is now to be seen as a kind of alchemical retort. The prima materia to be transformed are the nuclear stockpiles, the toxic waste dumps, the industrial wastelands, the populations devoid of hope, the populations at threat of infectious and fatal epidemic disease. There is a great deal of prima materia to be worked on at the historical level of the alchemical process.


Trying to manage this rationally with some political -ism—fascism, Marxism, capitalism—goes nowhere. It just digs us deeper into the mire and the muck. At the fringes people like yourselves, people like myself, people I associate, offer endless solutions: recycling, restraint in child-bearing, increased toleration of unusual sexual styles. Many, many things are suggested, but nothing happens because the primary agenda of society has not yet been dissolved, has not yet come into a state fluidity sufficient where a new imprint can be put upon it. In the sixties we thought that all that had to happen was everybody would take LSD and the obvious right things to do would be done. And we expected no opposition to this, because its rightness was so obvious. We didn’t realize that every righteous crusade in history has marched into the waiting jaws of its oppressors. But the spirit doesn’t die.


It’s interesting. I don’t know how it’s said in Europe, but in America we refer (and have always referred) to freaks as “Bohemians.” And I assumed, you know, you hear about the left-bank Bohemia of Paris in the twenties. And I always went, “But why Bohemia? What does Bohemia have to do with Paris? Why are freaks called Bohemians?” It’s because of Frederick the Elector and the alchemical renaissance that he plotted with his wife. Since that time to now, “Bohemian” has meant a marginal political position involved with bizarre sexual practices, strange drug use, and funny ideas.


Well, in the sixties, then, LSD was not sufficient, even coupled with rock’n’roll. It only brought oppression. It was like a failed alchemy. Instead of the dissolving and recrystallizing at a higher and more angelic level, thousands of prisons were built and the entire thing failed. But this spirit is the spirit. The spirit of life itself. The spirit of novelty itself. And it will not be suppressed for long in any time or place. So now, again, it comes after thirty years, after many changes, and it’s among us again. And I assume, looking at all of you, that (to some degree) you represent this or act it out. Because it’s a spirit of dissent that says we will not serve the values of materialism, the values of the ego, and the values that separate and break down the community.


So here it is again. And what is different this time that we might have some greater hope of actually coming through to the beginning of the third millennium without having to hang our heads when we tell the story to our grandchildren? And I will submit to you this evening that the difference between then (1965 through 1970) and now (to the turn of the century)—two things. First of all, we have that experience under our belt. We shall not be so stupid again. The I Ching says, “Never confront evil directly, and never name it directly, because it finds weapons to defend itself.” We are not an army. This is what Frederick didn’t understand. He was a king, but he was not an army when it came to the White Mountain. We are not an army. So our strategy must be stealth. It’s an alchemical strategy. And what do I mean by stealth? I mean the house of constipated reason must be infiltrated by art, by dreamers, by vision.


And what is new is that there are massive technologies available to us not available in the sixties. They were not designed for us, they were not intended for us, it was never ever thought that such power should flow into the hands of freaks such as ourselves. Nevertheless, through the perverse nature of the unfolding of the world we have such tools. And I’m referring, as you probably anticipate, to the world wide web and the Internet. No gay kid in Montana, no Chinese scholar in Botswana, no person anywhere with a specialized interest or predilection now need feel alone. There is no aloneness. You can find your people.


You know, one of the things Tim Leary said in the sixties that I always remembered but I never heard anybody talk about, or ever really heard him quote—it was a great rallying cry. It was much better than “turn on, tune in, drop out.” And it was this. It was: “Find the others.” Find the others! And then you will know what to do. Well, now you can find the others. You don’t have to stick a flower in your hair and go to San Francisco. You just go to the web. Find the others. We all need to create affinity groups which are subsets of the much larger community that we’re part of. And then, using this technology which was designed to keep track of us, to pick our pockets, and to sell us junk we don’t want, use this technology to produce art; massive amounts of subversive art. And all art is subversive. I’m not calling for an ideological agenda. All truth which springs from the individual is subversive because—and this is a theme of mine that I’m getting more and more into the longer I live—culture is not your friend.


This is an odd message for the late nineties, because we’re all being told: you knew you were Jewish, but you forgot your Sicilian grandmother. You have to honor all of your family. Romanian—bring it forward. The dances of this, that, and the other. I hate all of this stuff. I’m Irish. It’s a weird thing to be; it’s a haunted, twisted people, as a people. All peoples—meaning tribes—have horrible stories to tell about who they did under and who they screwed over. And when you’re asked to identify with your culture, you’re asked to take this on. I reject it. My brother, years ago, invented this term. He called it “extra-environmental.” He said this is what we want to be. We don’t want to be Americans or Germans or English. We want to be extra-environmentalists: always feel wherever you go that you are a stranger, the outsider, the one looking in. This is the viewpoint that makes all places the same to you. There’s a wonderful English poet and writer, Rudyard Kipling, and he wrote a children’s short story called The Cat that Walked by Himself, and it’s a story of how the dog came to the cave of man and would lay at the man’s feet, but the cat would never come. And when the woman asked the cat why it would never come, it said, “I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.”


And I think transcending our cultures is going to be extraordinarily necessary for our survival. I don’t think we can carry our cultures through the keyhole of the stretch of the next millennium. Well, how do you shed your culture? How do you transcend your culture? By digging into your soul with the tools that have been given you to make art. This is how cultures are transformed: by art which flows up and actually submerges the previous cultural forms. I mean, the Baroque gave way to later periods simply out of exhaustion. But notice: a style can exhaust itself and still continue, as Manorialism did out of the Renaissance, for example. And when these exhausted styles are allowed to continue they become toxic, they become moribund. It’s like keeping a corpse around the house.


There is an obligation to overthrow that, to produce the new, to produce the novel. And by the novel I don’t mean the literary form, I mean all things new. And then it is not the function of the artist to be the critic. The winnowing out, the deciding what is good from what is bad, comes later. And that’s a community process. The community decides what is good and bad art, but the individual should pour this forth. I mean, this is what you are. You are some kind of a mystery suspended between two eternities. And in that moment—when a mind looks out at a world and asks the question: “What is it?”—in that moment art can be created. And it is the only form of immortality that I have any certainty of, and it’s available to everyone.


At the present moment I make no distinction between art and techne. I mean, to my mind these things are the same thing. A great turning point is in the offing. The world is changing. It’s changed before, but not for a long time in our lives. Not since before our lives. But now it’s changing and there are many, many possibilities. The English biologist Dawkins invented the word “meme.” D’you all know what a meme is? It’s the smallest unit of an idea. It’s like what a gene is to biology, a meme is to ideology. And so our task is to create memes. Madonna is a meme, Catholicism is a meme, Marxism is a meme, yellow sweaters are a meme. Create memes. Rainbow-colored dreadlocks are a meme. Launch your meme boldly and see if it will replicate! Just like genes replicate and infect and move into the organism of society. And—believing as I do that society operates on a kind of biological economy—then I believe these memes are the key to societal evolution. But unless the memes are released to play the game, there’s no progress.


So I think the obligation on people such as ourselves—and I assume (probably without exception) everybody in this room falls into the upper five percent of the Earth’s population in terms of wealth, education, and freedom. Even if you’re some poor pierced metalhead from the dark side of Mannheim, you have a better situation than most people on this planet; a better chance at actually reaching out at the machinery that shapes reality and having an impact. Well, so then the question becomes, or for some people is: “But I have nothing to say” or “I have nothing to paint” or “I have nothing to communicate.” Well, clearly you’re not taking enough drugs, then! That excuse simply will not be tolerated. And if someone finds that decadent or flippant or destructive, then they don’t understand what these psychedelic substances are. They open the doorway to creativity. They cleanse the doors of perception. And then, as Blake said, reality is perceived as it truly is: as infinite.


Part of what is wrong with our society (and hence with ourselves) is that we consume images. We don’t produce them. We need to produce, not consume media. Media is a huge issue. You can’t escape it. So what are you going to do about it? The only solution is to drive it, to take charge. Otherwise you will be poisoned by it. And as more and more people are waking up to this, essentially we are seeing, I think, a huge artistic revolution: a revolution in values that reaches into science, that reaches into politics, that reaches into every aspect of life, but that is coming from the imagination thoroughly stimulated and activated by the discovery of all these natural and synthetic substances which perturb the mind. And I’m not denying that a certain amount of social chaos goes along with this. But, on the other hand, I can point to pretty psychedelically pure centuries—like the thirteenth in Europe—and there was still plenty of social chaos going on. I don’t think you can lay social chaos at the feet of psychedelics, I think social chaos is an inimical part of the system. What psychedelics do is: they give a direction to that chaos, a dimension of vertical ascent. Because inevitably, out of the psychedelic situation emerges not despair, not self-indulgence, but wild-eyed idealism. That’s the inevitable product of any psychedelically-driven social process. How well that idealistic idea then brokers its way to the throne, if it does, is another issue.


I don’t know if I’ve hit this technological thing hard enough. I hope that you all avail yourselves of the power of the Internet. In years past, in speaking to audiences in America, it was maddening to me to find that the environmentalists, the feminists, the gays, the psychedelic people (and I’m not sure if I got everybody)—and the space people, the colonization people—none of these people had anything to say to each other. They didn’t seem to realize that their marginality united them far more than any difference they might perceive in their positions. And they didn’t seem to realize that their political disempowerment was a product of their inability to make common cause with people similarly motivated or similarly motivated toward social change.


So it’s very important to build an inclusive community, and a community that has a sense of direction. And I think the Internet empowers this far more than any other tool that has been handed to us, except psychedelics. And if you take psychedelics and the Internet and music, and put all of that together, you have the basis for a new community that is wider and deeper than you know. The people who are building the new machines, who are designing the new circuitry, who are writing the new code are all freaks. I mean, the work for capitalist dogs, of course, because we all do, but the creative thrust of these technologies is being driven by people just like you and me. And I think this is all tremendously positive.


So—where am I in all of this? Well, I’m getting there, I’m getting there. And then finally, I guess—and I’ll just close on this—the alchemical return. All culture is some kind of myth. All cultural stories, then, have a psychic dynamic to them which is not suspected by the civilization as it lives these myths. It has to be seen from outside. And there is a consistent myth in—let’s call it just Western civilization without being too precise—a consistent myth. In the early Jews you get it as the idea that God will enter history. With Christianity you get it with the idea that man and God can be consubstantial. Again, in Islam the insistence that God will enter history. Then, modern science strangely enough dumps all of this theology, but maintains the idea that man can become as a god. In other words, the myth that is consistent throughout the entire Western experience is the myth of some kind of defining progressive experience. Well, now we have the power to realize this myth in some kind of (for want of a better word) an alchemical utopia.


And I think it’s very interesting that, at this very high-tech moment in our adventure, the plants return. The humblest of all biology. The plants return and almost stand before us as a beacon and a promise. Have you noticed that plants do all their business with dirt and air? This is something we only wish we could do: build an industrial society based on nothing more than the ambient dirt and the air flowing past. Building sugars and carbohydrates out of gaseous oxygen. I mean, this is quite a trick. The plants stand—both in the psychedelic sense, but then in the larger sense of the vegetable kingdom—they stand for absolute Tao. They stand for the correct way for life to relate to is environment: effortlessly recycling, vegetatively propagating when necessary, sexually propagating when necessary, immune to pain, patient to the tune of centuries, always building up structure, always maintaining a leavening effect on the land. All of these qualities of caregiving and—well, notice, for example, that all the processes of biology occur below the boiling point of water. If we could build societies that did that! We work in the range of hundreds of degrees, thousands of degrees, fusing metals and creating toxicity.


So I think the psychedelic plant revolution, which is leading toward the nanotechnological revolution—in other words, the imitating of nature at the atomic level in building of machines and the management of processes—what all of this is leading toward is a rarefaction—good alchemical word!—a rarefaction of the human imprint on this planet, a spiritualization of humanity, and a new order of mind: part machine, part human. Notice that the Internet and the computers that it serves are actually made of the materials of the Earth. They’re largely metals, silicon, glass, copper, gold, silver. These are the products of demonic artifice. These are the things which the alchemists dreamed of. They transform space and time. They allow us to speak at a distance. They allow us to wander through libraries thousands of miles distant. No fact is too obscure, no person so hidden, that you can’t reach them. It is, in a way, the perfection of the magical ideal that was developed and unfortunately prematurely launched by Frederick the Elector and his wife here nearby at Heidelberg.


And so I’m involved, as I said, in a process of bringing this story to many people who haven’t heard it. It’s a great story. It’s a great myth that the underground community should make its own. And I used it this evening just as the scaffold for this talk, but I tried to hit the things that are important to me, which are psychedelics, recovery of archaic lifestyles, use of media to subvert existing paradigms, empowerment of the individual through dissolving the ego through psychedelics, and… oh, I don’t know… whatever else! So thank you for your patience and indulgence, and if you have any questions, I’d be glad to answer them.

Terence McKenna

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