Ayahuasca Reader by Luis Eduardo Luna & Steven F. White (Ed)
Originally published in 2000 ‘Ayahuasca Reader – Encounters with the Amazon’s sacred vine’ is one of the finest selections of drug writing currently available on the market. Edited by Luis Eduardo Luna and Steven F. White, the reader manages to skillfully portray the ayahuasca experience in all its many dimensions.
Popular interest in ayahuasca has blossomed in the Western world over the last twenty years, however there is much research, writing and oral poetry on the topic dating from a far earlier period of time. This reader brings those threads together in a manner that beautifully caters for the new position ayahuasca finds itself in: “The general objective of this anthology is to provide the reader with a panorama of texts from nearly a dozen languages that, collectively, treat the ayahuasca experience from what might be called an “anthropoliterary” perspective.” The originality of this method immediately lends itself to an exciting literary prospect.
The reader is divided into four sections, which although clearly delineated, often overlap in content with one another. Consequentially, the editors do suggest that in such an undertaking these artifical boundaries do present their own problems for the reader, especially in garnering a succinct understanding of the overall concepts therein; one is faced by the difficulties in translating the experience of ayahuasca – personally and culturally – into words.
The first section is titled ‘Myths and Testimonies’ and, as the same suggests, is primarily about exploring the “mythopoetic narratives in which ayahuasca is the protagonist.” Largely made up of translations from the declarations of ‘natives’, it explores creation myths, rituals and the rich narratives that have grown up around the use ayahuasca. The chapter titled ‘Creation Myth’, by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, struck me as especially revealing:
“The world we live in has the shape of a large disk, an immense round plate. It is the world of men and animals, the world of life. While the dwelling place of the sun has a yellow color, the color of the power of the sun, the dwelling place of men and animals is of a red color, the color of fecundity and of the blood of living beings.”
‘Ayahuasca Cultural Encounters’ is the title of the second section, which includes words from the likes of Richard Spruce, Michael Harner and Angelika Gebhart Sayer, amongst others. The ethnobotanists and anthropologists “all demonstrate varying degrees of interactive participation in ayahuasca rituals among indigenous and mestizo populations.” In this manner, one finds specific conceptions of the experience from a more Westernized mode of understanding.
One chapter titled ‘Jaguar-Becoming’ by William Torres C. is outlined in the introduction as possibly being read as “unnecessary, even suffocating” because of its “application of the thoroughly ‘foreign’ theories of Deleuze and Guattari.” However, it is a wonderful illustration of how one might read a psychedelic experience critically, wherein the “Jaguar-Becoming”, the potentiality of man, is a desiring force that works at interplay. I thought it both very moving and challenging in the questions it raises:
“A slow speed passes my body along the roofs and the wall of the instance, quicker and quicker, until reaching a speed at which it is no longer necessary to support myself on my extremities because the impulse drives my body at a line of speed that flows in the air. The body, stretched out and suspended at the speed of an infinite pounce, experiences flying, which brings about this written piece on the speaking event.”
The third section, ‘New Religions: Santo Daime, Barquinha, and União do Vegetal (UDV)’, is indicative of a social change in ayahuasca understanding that has developed over the last fifty years. As an entheogenic reading of the experience, we are taken away from the simple individualistic understanding of “generating God within” and toward a ‘set and setting’ that is designed as a group initiative.
Its concern are the three aforementioned Brazilian churches who use ayahuasca as a sacrament in services. Passages include hymns, songs and treatise on the religious makeup of the groups. One begins to see how a framework of understanding can be constructed around the experiential aspect of being. The section concludes with an interdisciplinary passage written by Dennis McKenna, which beautifully describes his own “lesson from the teacher.”
Finally, the fourth section, which is a selection of extracts from various literary offerings. It includes writers like Allen Ginsberg (extract from The Yage Letters,) Luis Eduardo Luna, Mario Villafranca Saravia and W.S. Merwin. From my own perspective, these extracts are the most enduring of those included because they offer the chance to gain a glimpse into the very place where drug understanding intersects with literature. Michael’s ‘Returning’ is a fine example of a writer translating experience into the signs of words:
“The forest floor is warm, the radiant earth-heat being distributed from the head to the tip of the tail. I am Makanshi, glittering hunter, warrior quick as lightening. It has just rained. The vegetation is inundated, the prism tingles. It is broad daylight to human beings, but it is night. Day and night are only registered through the warmth the earth either gives or takes.”
Another, perhaps more insightful part to this section, is a collection of poetry by the reader’s editor Steven F. White, and a single poem by Dale Pendell. Poetry is the art of capturing the essence and one finds the very transient understanding of ayahuasca essence terrifically captured in these poetic words.
From ‘The Hummingbird’ by White: “Can I call you when I need you? / Will you help me when I’m frightened? / Drink my colors, they’re like whirlpools. / Kiss the flower, my open mouth.” Of all literary aspects, poetry is perhaps the least examined in psychedelia and this selection goes a long way to giving us the chance of correcting that.
Above all the wonderful perceptions that the ‘Ayahuasca Reader’ gives us, the editors are also keen to note that it illustrates some of the major problems in understanding the nature of psychedelic literature. Translation across languages and culture, from experience to words and back to the reader, all construct a web of possible critical analysis. However, it should be noted that this reader not only acknowledges these problems but it attempts, quite successfully, to engage with them.
The Ayahuasca Reader is absolute gold for anyone who takes an interest in psychedelic literature and the experience of ayahuasca. Highly recommended.