Interview: Andy Letcher
Andy Letcher is a writer of non-fiction, specifically psychedelics, paganism, shamanism and evolution, a lecturer and a folk musician. He is the author of ‘Shroom – A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom’, an evidence-based research project examining human relationships with psilocybin and Amanita mushrooms. He’s also had an academic essay – Mad thoughts on Mushrooms – published in the Anthropology of Consciousness journal, wherein he uses a Foucauldian discourse analysis to examine psychedelic consciousness and mushrooms.
The blossoming of psychedelic culture, argues Andy in Shroom, is a particularly Western phenomena. Since it began to take shape it has come to encompass many different artistic mediums. For Andy, it is the music that has had the greatest impact on him, where the likes of The Doors, Gong and Ozric Tentacles have “conveyed to me the feeling of having ‘been there’. Haunting, beguiling, terrifying, this music called to some deep part of me and beckoned me on my way.”
PsypressUK asked Andy about which works of psychedelic literature have inspired him in the past and like Huxley and McKenna before him, he concedes that language often struggles to communicate the psychedelic experience adequately. However, “Huxley’s Doors of Perception rightfully remains a classic. His thoughtful approach means that he succeeds in making his mescaline trip amenable to the reader.” Alongside William James’ ‘Varieties of the Religious Experience’, he believes Baudelaire’s writing on hashish to be indispensable, although he disagrees with Baudelaire’s conclusions.
Andy also raised an interesting point about what ‘psychedelic literature’ actually is. For if you “mean literature that has radically altered the way I see the world, then top of my list of writers would be the post-structuralist philosopher, Michel Foucault.” The degree to which a text can change your conscious understanding is also similar to the way in which certain discourses feel psychedelics affect the individual; that is, they challenge previously held conceptions.
Andy did his undergraduate at Sheffield University where he “remember[s] finding a copy of Roger Heim’s Les Champignons Hallucinogenes in the library and thinking that I’d like to write a book about magic mushrooms.” Twenty years later when he began to write ‘Shroom’ he realized “that psychedelic history was becoming fossilized as mythology – no matter which book you picked up you saw the same story told over and again.” He wanted to produce a book that was “a critical history of magic mushrooms, one built upon evidence, that would actually serve to strengthen the case for considered psychedelic usage.”
He certainly succeeded in his intentions. The book examines many myths that surround psychedelic folklore – Santa Claus being a thinly disguised mushroom, Alice in Wonderland fables and the great Eleusinian rite, amongst others – and delivers both startling and well-researched results. As an analytical work on psychedelic culture and society, specifically magic mushrooms, it is a vital work in demonstrating the variety of discourses.
In Shroom Andy wrote: “Different people, let alone different cultures, have quite clearly approached the same drug differently, and the common thread linking the disparate cultures in their relationship with drugs is more correctly an attitude of ambivalence.”
PsypressUK asked him if this attitude has hindered the psychedelic movement and/or the voice for legalisation?
“Well I think the time is right for psychedelia to undergo a critical and reflexive self-examination. Quite understandably given the legal situation, it has adopted a defensive attitude, seeing itself as a persecuted and misunderstood minority which, nonetheless, possesses privileged access to the truth. To question any of its tenets is to risk being branded ‘anti’, but not to do so, I would argue, is to leave ourselves open to the much more serious accusation of embracing irrationalism.”
He goes on to argue that currently many approaches have come out of an out-moded modernist theory; wherein essentialist attitudes to the psychedelic experience and invented historical traditions have left psychedelia open to pillarisation.
Critically speaking “a postmodern approach, however, lives with the uncertainty of knowing that all experiences are culturally mediated. If the ‘essence’ of the psychedelic experience necessarily eludes our grasp we must look, instead, to the ways in which experiences are discursively constructed and contested.” Therefore “what I’m arguing for is a return to the original questing spirit of the 1950s and 60s which, bizarrely and perhaps counter-intuitively, necessitates a move away from modernist certainties – We need a new, critical Tripology.”
In his Foucauldian discourse analysis – ‘Mad Thoughts on Magic Mushrooms: Discourse and power in the study of psychedelic consciousness’ – Andy demonstrates how invalid the modernist approach is and the extent to which contradiction amongst the essentialist attitudes is more obviously a social and cultural inter-relationship. He does, however, argue that there is a weighting toward the animaphany discourse – which is both a recognition of his own cultural leaning and the transpersonal, environmental understanding of mushrooms and consciousness.
To what extent do you think the environmental and psychedelic movement have influenced one another?
“There’s certainly a strong link between the two. Wasn’t deep ecology inspired in part by psychedelic experiences in nature? I’m very influenced by my time spent as a road-protester during the 90s, a counter-cultural movement that fused direct-action, paganism, tree-sitting, low-impact lifestyles, folk music and psychedelics – so-called tribedelica. Beyond that, people who find the psychedelic transfiguration of the other-than-human world to be profoundly moving and meaningful, may very well go on to take political action or make radical lifestyle choices, even if there is no necessary relationship between the two.”
As with any critical project a recognition of one’s own cultural bias is essential to the process and Andy has more than fulfilled this criteria in his analysis of the understandings of the psychedelic experience: “It’s my own Quixotic quest, if you will. I need to know how far philosophy can take us before we have to abandon the good ship Rationality for the choppy waters of Belief. I know there are those who would have had me walk the plank a long time ago but I’m not quite ready to take the plunge…not yet anyway.”
I’d like to thank Andy for answering our questions and wish him the best of luck with all his future projects. I’ll leave you with a quote from his Mad Thoughts essay: “The answer to the question of mushrooms and consciousness may yet be advanced by those prepared to think the unthinkable and to take the risk of being labelled as more than a little mad.”