The Archaic Revival


The Archaic RevivalSpeculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFO’s, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess and the End of History, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1992.

In The Archaic Revival, Terence McKenna lays the groundwork for something like a psychedelic culture, a society based on new values.

In the etiology of the group alienation that is so typical for our culture, the author detects a basic denial of ecstasy.

McKenna’s views are deliberately political in the sense that he claims nobody can develop a sane mind within an insane culture, without rejecting that culture in the first place:

In addition to choosing to repress the strange abilities of the shaman and the psychic potential of contact with the Other, Western tradition has a built-in bias against self experimentation with hallucinogens. One of the consequences of this is that not enough has been written about the phenomenology of personal experiences with the visionary hallucinogens. /3

I am a political activist, but I think that the first duty of a political activist is to become psychedelic. Otherwise you’re not making your moves cognizant of the entire field of action./13

There is a parallel here with Krishnamurti who had a similar position with the difference only that he did not endorse psychedelics. But K is quoted to have said that ‘it is not a proof of mental health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’ McKenna sees no way around the citizen’s perversity than by ‘civilizing’ him or her psychedelically, while Krishnamurti sees the way out through total attention:

So the issue finally comes down to the citizen versus the self. The citizen is an extremely limited definition of human potential. The self is a definition of human potential so broad that it threatens the obligations of the citizen./12

When we give a primacy to the self, the individual, and hence see society or the group as secondary, we still can build group values from such a starting point, and we can build them with ecstasy as a primary value in place. This is exactly the outcome of my own shamanism research, and I have found no other author who saw this with an even remotely similar lucidity as Terence McKenna. He writes:

Shamanism is use of the archaic techniques of ecstasy that were developed independent of any religious philosophy—the empirically validated, experientially operable techniques that produce ecstasy. Ecstasy is the contemplation of wholeness. That’s why when you experience ecstasy—when you contemplate wholeness—you come down remade in terms of the political and social arena because you have seen the larger picture./13

When we ask what shamanism is we need to focus our research on the shaman as the central figure. The shaman is a mind-alterer, a reality-shifter, a magician, and at the same time, a healer. But he’s an outcast nonetheless, and this is his crux:

So it is the form of the mind that the shaman works with: he has a larger view because he is not really in his culture. (…) The shaman may appear a member of the culture, but he’s broader, deeper, higher, and wider than the culture that created him./14

As a culture-founder and ‘psychedelic’ politician, McKenna asked who or what is going to be supportive of his quest? He decided that shamanism was part of this special branch of popular culture he became the spokesman of. Then, he discussed why he did not embrace Buddhism as a religion, and his answer is conclusive and makes sense:

I think of Mahayana Buddhism, the multileveled, many-inhabited, demon-haunted, Buddha-haunted realms of peace and joy. The insistence of Mahayana Buddhism that there is really no center, that everything is a construct of time and space, is the most sophisticated psychology. But I’m not willing to climb aboard the Buddhist ethic because Buddhism says suffering is inevitable. That’s not a psychedelic point of view./17

I always thought that the Buddha was judging life instead of embracing life, and this is pretty much a cultural bias in the whole of Indian philosophy. The ‘psychedelic’ sage, and there is wide agreement here, is definitely not somebody who judges life, but who embraces life. But McKenna’s critical stance on religion is more general than that:

Unfortunately, religion for the past five hundred years has been a hierarchical pyramid at whose top were theologians interpreting dogma. This interpretation was handed down through a hierarchy to the faithful. I think religious hierarchies are very unsettled by the idea of direct revelation. Nevertheless, this phenomenon is certainly thriving in preliterate cultures all over the world. We discovered in dealing with this that the only people you could talk to about it or who seemed to have familiarity with it were shamans./28

Now, we got shamanism and the spirits of nature in our cultural soup, and we got no religion besides nature’s religions, and direct perception as our awareness paradigm. But what is missing? McKenna puts a unique stress on language, and the evolution of language through psychedelics, as an essential characteristic of his new, and yet perennial, cultural paradigm.

And this is certainly part of what the psychedelics are about: they force the evolution of language. And no culture, so far as I am aware, has ever consciously tried to evolve its language with the awareness that evolving language was evolving reality. (…) The social consequence of the psychedelic experience is clear thinking—which trickles down as clear speech. Empowered speech./21

Terence McKenna
Terence McKenna

McKenna’s detractors cunningly argue that his highly refined use of language was not the result of psychedelics but of his Irish tradition, and that he was using his obvious literary talent for making up a cultural pretension, as a matter of show, and for establishing his particular niche in popular culture.

It is true that McKenna had the ability to render complex and convoluted speeches with a crystal-clear ‘premeditated’ logic, that, as his voice is rather monotonous, suggests someone reading from an invisible book in front of his eyes. I haven’t seen or heard anything comparable in my life. This being said, it seems obvious that McKenna, when molding his cultural Pygmalion cannot rely on proven theories, but proceeds by drafting hypotheses, such as the following one, that bears however some anthropological backup:

Anthropologists have commented on the absence of serious mental disease in many preliterate cultures. I believe that the mediation of the shaman and through him the contact to the centering Logos, this source of information or gnosis, is probably the cause of this ability to heal or minimize psychological disorders./29

The open question is if this ability of the shaman to seize the ‘Centering Logos’ for healing purposes requires a culture to be preliterate? The question hits home because in my unique experience with Ayahuasca in 2004, the plant intelligence communicated to me that I was more or less unable to perceiving reality directly, and that this atrophy had come about through the strong language training I had received, so that language had become in my life an obstacle to the real understanding of nature, and nature’s wisdom.

The Archaic Revival
The Archaic Revival

Thus, my psychedelic experience seems to confirm McKenna’s view that language is in the way of understanding nature when it’s not transformed, modulated psychedelically, and rendered a philosopher’s stone through the unique alchemy of entheogens impacting, over long periods of time, on our mindbody chemistry.

And this, in turn, is exactly what McKenna has summarized as the essential in the Archaic Revival. It is his mind-boggling assumption that only through psychedelics humankind was able to build civilization, and that originally entheogens were really laid in our cultural cradle, and have served over millennia their good purpose, until exactly the moment when in the 20th century, our paranoid leaders put them on the index of ‘forbidden plants.’

In his book Food of the Gods McKenna lucidly comments on this prohibition with the words that ‘the notion of illegal plants is obnoxious and ridiculous in the first place.’ And he points to the degree of barbarous misinformation and anti-cultural propaganda that this this cultural denial has brought us, with the result that civilization, from that moment, was in a backward trend:

Psilocybin, in the minds of the uninformed public and in the eyes of the law, is lumped together with LSD and mescaline, when in fact each of these compounds is a phenomenologically defined universe unto itself. Psilocybin and DMT invoke the Logos, although DMT is more intense and more brief in its action. This means that they work directly on the language centers, so that an important aspect of the experience is the interior dialogue./36

Interestingly enough, McKenna shows a parallel of this 20th century anti-psychedelic paranoia with the former worldview under Christianity that regarded any wisdom from nature as diabolic and abject, and that destroyed much of the direct knowledge that ancient civilizations possessed about life:

The Stropharia cubensis mushroom, if one can believe what it says in one of its moods, is a symbiote, and it desires ever deeper symbiosis with the human species. It achieved symbiosis with human society early by associating itself with domesticated cattle and through them human nomads. Like the plants men and women grew and the animals they husbanded, the mushroom was able to inculcate itself into the human family, so that where human genes went these other genes would be carried. But the classic mushroom cults of Mexico were destroyed by the coming of the Spanish conquest. The Franciscans assumed they had an absolute monopoly on theophagy, the eating of God; yet in the New World they came upon people calling a mushroom teonanacatl, the flesh of the gods; yet in the New World they came upon people calling a mushroom teonanacatl, the flesh of the gods. They set to work, and the Inquisition was able to push the old religion into the mountains of Oaxaca so that it only survived in a few villages when Valentina and Gordon Wasson found it there in the 1950s./40

Our symbiosis with the Other, that unique intelligence which speaks through psychedelic mushrooms, and that is accessible through their ritualistic ingestion, McKenna argues, was cut, as through still another cultural circumcision we were subjected to, on the basis of spiritual dominance taken as religion, and as a matter of power abuse and tyranny.

Ignorance burned the libraries of the Hellenistic world at an earlier period and dispersed the ancient knowledge, shattering the stellar and astronomical machinery that had been the work of centuries. By ignorance I mean the Hellenistic-Christian-Judaic tradition. The inheritors of this tradition built a triumph of mechanism. It was they who later realized the alchemical dreams of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—and the twentieth century—with the transformation of elements and the discovery of gene transplants. But then, having conquered the New World and driven its people into cultural fragmentation and diaspora, they came unexpectedly upon the body of Osiris—the condensed body of Eros—in the mountains of / Mexico where Eros has retreated at the coming of the Christos. And by finding the mushroom, they unleashed it./40-41

I have forwarded the point of view, and I am not the only one, that psychoanalysis was meant to be, from the start, more than a medical technique, but had, especially in its Freudian vintage, a strong underlying idea of shamanism to it. The importance of the shaman as an integrative and sacred figure in a highly technologically alienated culture such as ours is obvious. McKenna writes:

The tragedy of our cultural situation is that we have no shamanic tradition. Shamanism is primarily techniques, not ritual. It is a set of techniques that have been worked out over millennia that make it possible, though perhaps not for everyone, to explore these areas. People of predilection are noticed and encouraged. In archaic societies where shamanism is a thriving institution, the signs are fairly easy to recognize: oddness and uniqueness in an individual. /45

Among aspiring shamans there must be some sign of inner strength or a hypersensitivity to trance states. In traveling around the world and dealing with shamans, I find the distinguishing characteristic is an extraordinary centeredness. Usually the shaman is an intellectual and is alienated from society. A good shaman sees exactly who you are and says, Ah, here’s somebody to have a conversation with. The anthropological literature always presents shamans as embedded in a tradition, but once one gets to know them they are always very sophisticated about what they are doing. They are the true phenomenologists of this world; they know plant chemistry, yet they call these energy fields spirits. /Id.

The integrative philosophy that McKenna’s Archaic Revival represents and that we are the inheritors of, after the passing away of its creator  requires us to build relationships between phenomena we don’t usually think of as related.

McKenna teaches that this synthetic view of the universe is immensely facilitated through what he calls the ‘mediation’ of the plant teachers:

A voice that gave guidance and revelation to Western civilization has been silent for about seventeen hundred years. This is the Logos and all ancient philosophers strove to invoke it. For Hellenistic / philosophy it was a voice that told self-evident truth. With the passing of the Aeon and the death of the pagan gods, awareness of this phenomenon faded. However, it is still available through the mediation of the plant teachers. If we could intelligently examine dimensions that the psychedelic plants make available, we could contact the Oversoul and leave behind this era where dominance hierarchies must be disciplined by UFOs and messiahs, and where progress is halted for millennia because culture cannot advance ethics at the same rate as technology. /61-62

In fact, contrary to many who claim their Ayahuasca experience was but a spectacle of colorful visions, I can testify as a direct witness of what McKenna writes about the Logos coming through as an intelligence or plant teacher, manifesting in the psychedelic state as an immediately present telepathic voice and response-giver that teaches a wisdom not from this earth.

Terence McKenna
Terence McKenna

And it has taught me a wisdom, not general, but very much tailored to my own needs, telling me through direct insight that I needed to give love instead of waiting to receive love from others, and that by doing so without wavering in my attitude, I could overcome the pitfall of perception that my overindulgence of language-related thinking has brought about. From 2004 to 2007, and thus within three consecutive years, I have fundamentally changed not only concepts and relationships, but also my daily life and habits, and there are no more depressions, no more outbursts of hate and violence, no more sad remembrances of my terrible childhood, and I have simply become wiser in all I think and do.

McKenna’s vision of the Archaic Revival targets at the creation of nothing less but a psychedelic science, while he localized himself to be an avatar in the creation of that science, in similar ways as our technological explorers some centuries back on the road of technological progress, only that this progress will not be fragmented, but holistic:

The early approach with psychedelics was the correct one. This is the notion that intelligent, thoughtful people should take psychedelics and try and understand what’s going on. Not groups of prisoners, not graduate students, but mature, intelligent people need to share their experiences. It’s too early for a science. What we need now are the diaries of explorers. We need many diaries of many explorers so we can begin to get a feeling for the territory./69

And as a parallel movement with the creation of that psychedelic science that McKenna envisions, he predicts the ultimate encounter with the Other, whenever on a timeline of events this may occur:

Eventually this contact will occur. We are now in the pubescent stage of yearning, of forming an image of the thing desired. This image of the thing desired will eventually cause that thing come into being. In other words, our cultural direction is being touched by the notion of / alien love, and it comes to us through the rebirth of the use of plant hallucinogens. The shamanic vision plants seem to be the carriers of this pervasive entelechy that speaks and that can present itself to us in this particular way. (…) The appetite for this fusion is what is propelling global culture toward an apocalyptic transformation. (…) But it could also slip away. We could harden; there are dominator, hypertechnological futures that we could sail toward and realize. That would eliminate this possibility of opening to the Other./73-74

While McKenna seems to see this encounter with the Other a bit in the way of science fiction novels, as a spectacular one-time event, described by some as the proverbial ‘UFO landing on the ground of the White House’, he acknowledges, what can be called a consensus now, that this Presence, this Other does not need to come here, because the eternal present aligns all dimensions as superpositions, and not in horizontal space. But what is the barrier, then, between them and us? According to McKenna, it is language, and it’s by the evolution of language that we are going to get over the fence and face the Other:

As human history goes forward, we develop the linguistic discrimination to be able to recognize the extraterrestrials that are already insinuated into the planetary environment around us, some of which may have been here millions and millions of years. In other words, space is not an impermeable barrier to life; there is slow drift. There is genetic material that is transferred through space and time over vast distances./80

Let me come to the end of this rather extended book review with a brief discussion of Novelty Theory, and what McKenna says about it in this book. Timewave Zero or Novelty Theory is a graph-based mathematical construct that depicts novelty in the universe as an inherent property of time. The idea was initiated by Terence McKenna in the 1970s and was worked out mathematically by the Swiss mathematician Peter Meyer. It is a wild and unconfirmed assumption when Wikipedia assumes that ‘the theory lacks any credible basis in peer-reviewed science and is generally dismissed as pseudoscience’. In personal correspondence with Meyer, I was informed that the theory basically is to be explained with the fractal nature of time; when novelty is graphed over time, a fractal waveform known as Timewave Zero results. The graph shows at what times novelty is increasing or decreasing. Now, this is what McKenna comments on the theory in the present book:

What is happening to our world is ingression of novelty toward what Whitehead called concrescence, a tightening gyre. Everything is flowing together. The autopoietic lapis, the alchemical stone at the end of time, coalesces when everything flows together. When the laws of physics are obviated, the universe disappears, and what is left is the tightly bound plenum, the monad, able to express itself for itself, rather than only able to cast a shadow into physis as its reflection. I come very close here to classical millenarian and apocalyptic thought in my view of the rate at which change is accelerating. From the way the gyre is tightening, I predict that concrescence will occur soon—around 2012 A.D. It will be the entry of our species into hyperspace, but it will appear to be the end of physical laws accompanied by the release of the mind into the imagination./101

Novelty, then, is put forward as a primary term necessary to a description of any temporal system much in the way that spin, velocity, and angular momentum are primary terms necessary to the description of any physical system. Synonyms for novelty are degree of connectedness or complexity. /109

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