Breaking Open the Head By Daniel Pinchbeck
Reading ‘Breaking Open the Head’ completed a cycle of investigation I’d unconsciously started over two years before. There was a patient anticipation in wanting to read it.
Perhaps it was symptomatic of an inherited respect for Daniel Pinchbeck’s writing, which I’d acquired unwittingly from a close and trusted friend. She’d read a few short but tantalizing passages to me and the effect had been the flicking of a new literary interest in my mind.
Two years ago, the passages had the effect of gestating my understanding of the psychedelic genre as a larger framework; they pieced together odd other bits of other psy-literature I’d read into a more coherent whole. I withdrew to 1953 and Aldous Huxley then moved chronologically forward. I needed to see the foundations of psychedelic literature being put up before grasping the nature of the contemporary conception.
In a similar respect, a historicism of psy-lit is one of the tasks Daniel sets himself in this book and I enjoyed learning about several of his influences who I’d yet to come into much contact with, like Walter Benjamin. At other times though, I was reading slightly adrift of Daniel’s threads as though we’d received totally different messages from the same author.
Daniel’s approach is ‘classically psychedelic’ in its structure – psychonaut & psychedelics – but to a post-modern extreme, where the topical threads are thickly layered and the referencing seems almost arbitrary in its recurrence. There is, however, some wonderful synthesis of ideas throughout.
The book’s tagline has changed from the first edition to the 2004 copy I have just read. Originally the tag was ‘A Journey into Contemporary Shamanism’ however, the 2004 edition says ‘A Chemical Adventure’, which makes it appear as if it’s cashing in on the psychedelic classic ‘PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story’. I was willing to put this aside though and brush the dust of the publishing industry away from it.
The threads of the book – Daniel’s own ‘awakening’, historicism of psychedelia, contemporary understanding and mystical awakening – are found across the genre to differing degrees in different writers. To begin with, the book is rather jarring in its methods of synthesising the different ideas but, in credit to its writer, by the end there is a very clear gnosis, which really wraps the book up as a whole.
The experimentation elements with Ibogaine, DMT and alike came across as the strongest parts of the journey. They were very engaging and treated with a respect by Daniel, who at no point laboured the experiences. Their effect was to create the lucidity of the story, though this often battled the laboured referencing of other writers and thinkers; where perhaps Daniel’s voice would have been ample.
Throughout, the main objective seems to be a mirroring between the author’s spiritual awakening and the spiritual closing of modern society. A jarring dualism between materialism and the esoteric that drives the narrative throughout. It consistently engages the reader to re-reflect on the world around them, as it slowly ‘breaks open the head’.
Science is both a friend and an enemy of psychedelia in this book. A friend as far as it is the modern psychonaut’s tool in synthesising chemicals. A foe in so far as it is rigidly empiricist and materialistic. Daniel never quite introduces the idea of a ‘dogmatic science’, partly I think because it seems to stand against what science is by action, that is non-dogmatic. But there is certainly a distrust of sciences foundations being taken as cultural gospel.
“Modern culture, devoted to mercantilism, industrialism, and scientific progress, enforced a sharp distinction between sleep and waking, idleness and productivity, childhood and adulthood, human consciousness and the non-sentient world of nature. The existence of numerous orders of conscious beings – beings that could show themselves on occasion, but most often appeared in certain ecstatic states or in dreams – was adamantly denied by both church and State.” (2004: P.67)
This departure is most clearly depicted in regard to Timothy Leary’s approach. Not the popular flair approach but his scientific understanding. In talking about general shamanic traits across the world:
“The candidate, while he is undergoing shamanic initiation, receives a “massive influx” of the sacred. That temporary unleashing of supernatural forces that the initiate must learn to control can be dangerous to those close to him” – Later on he quotes William Irwin Thompson “the shaman is transformer who takes in powerful energies…” (2004: P.71) –
This is in stark contrast to Leary’s belief, which proposed a change in personal perspective under psychedelics i.e. the power is not external, it is simply a change in consciousness, the internal. Daniel however examines the forces of externality as something other that opens up between the internal and external under psychedelics.
There are many interesting avenues of ideas and beliefs in ‘Breaking Open the Head’, too many for this review to incorporate. Suffice to say, this is an invaluable book for anyone interested in self-awareness and the possibilities of experience. Not, as Uncut described it ‘anyone interested in drugs will find this book worthwhile’ – I think this is perhaps the antithesis of the final messages Daniel writes and it surprises me that they chose the quote for the cover of the 2004 edition.