Pharmako/Gnosis by Dale Pendell
Originally published in 2005, this edition of Dale Pendell’s ‘Pharmako/Gnosis: Plant Teachers and the Poisoned Path’ is the North Atlantic Books 2009 hardback edition. The concluding part to Pendell’s Pharmako Trilogy, which includes ‘Pharmako/Poeia’ and ‘Pharmako/Dynamis,’ the book largely deals with the phantastica and daimonica class of plants and substances. Pendell is a poet, popular exponent of shamanic ethnobotany and the founding editor of the avant-garde magazine Kuksu.
Pendell’s previous two Pharmako books dealt with a range of plants and substances that included the likes of opiates, alcohol, cannabis, stimulants and empathogens. Pharmako/Gnosis, however, is concerned with a group of ethnobotanicals and chemicals that arguably have the greatest mythos surrounding them and, certainly, an important artistic and religious history embedded within their usage and our understanding of their effects. This is the phantastica class, which includes the visionary plants and chemical hallucinogens like magic mushrooms, the San Pedro cactus, d-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and N-N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT). It also deals with the group daimonica that includes ketamine, iboga and the Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, mushroom.
The book begins with an italicised note to the doctor that asks “Dear doctor, is this what they call madness?/Or is all of this a dream?” (Pendell 2009). This is an interesting distinction for Pendell to have drawn out at the very beginning of his book. While brief periods of medical and anthropological research preceded the great psychedelic boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was this later period that really began to outline the limits of the discussion. Dreams and madness. Heaven and hell. The literary experience of phantastica is so often an oscillation between these poles and whether they are associated with pathology (as cause or cure) or the visionary experience, the tension pervades the phantastica discourse. Pendell, aside from quickly highlighting the distinction, uses it playfully throughout his narrative. And at the centre of Pendell’s narrative of the poison path is the individual, the seeker, the reader, and the one who enters into the world of phantastica.
Here’s to you, fair traveler. Find the New World. Eat this page. Pop a ten-strip and go deep. Five hundred mics is a good round figure. Angels are singing. Wade on in, up to your hips in the bum-buzzie of solar meat cream. Let the oracles come alive again, not like something you read about in a book, but an actual cave that speaks, that will answer questions (Pendell 2009, 80)
The chapter on Peganum harmala—The Poison of Dreaming—is a particularly beautiful play of historical ideas and insights. Following its common names and related species, the reader is taken through the thoughts of Dioscorides to its chemical interplay, through to its ability to ward of the evil eye: “Belief in the evil eye is not at all universal—it has a clear geography—but within its sphere of influence it is one of the oldest beliefs known to anthropology” (Pendell 2009, 179). Note how a cultural-contingency is used not to simply demarcate an understanding on its own accord, but to position it within the multi-dimensional territory of the plant. Following, Pendell glides through the history as a word-stream intensified by the geography and history but one that is not limited to its flights of muse. The narrative explanation of the nature of these poison paths repeatedly opens itself up to repositioning and the effect is to create a fluid motion for what might otherwise have been a densely packed knowledge.
Some circles, especially circles of friends who know each other, maybe a semiannual equinox or solstice circle, begin with MDMA, and move to a hallucinogen several hours later, LSD, mushrooms, or phenethylamines such as 2-CB or 2-CI. Circles meet at wonderful places: beaches, meadows, groves, or deserts. Or someone’s house. Community ties are reestablished, problems talked out (Pendell 2009, 135)
The social observations of phantastica use are the exteriority of the poison path. These begin to mark out the boundaries of their integration, or penetration, into a social formation. For example, the above quote is part of a section dealing with circles, and the social circle is both bounded and formed by the phantastica. Interestingly, in this sort of observation one begins to see how more recent pharmacographies, like Tom Yardley’s Why We Take Drugs, have begun to see this form as being a political act. The communality and empathogenic effects give rise to new groundings of social form that occur from within the wider social, giving them a primary position as a source of social interaction and cohesion. Pendell’s text, on a macro scale, are an indication of the alteriority of these new forms. In other words, the language and interpretations of the poison path behave as a socially-mediated communiquè for the phantastica and daimonica.
There is a combination of disciplines, like botany, chemistry, literature, poetry and mythology, but there is, aside from the poetic articulation, no obvious territorial heirarchy to how the disciplines are portrayed by Pendell. The beauty of this is that it reflects the changed time of the poison path, the madness and the dreams of the travellers played through a single territory. The subject matter for Pharmako/Gnosis is, I believe, the most poetically understood generally, and combined with Pendell’s playful approach, provides a great culmination to his trilogy. In the end, the book is a pharmako-enriched, poetic narrative, which eloquently weaves a multidisciplinary language and teaches the tricky nature of the poison path to great pharmacographical effect.