Literary Review: ‘The Psychotropic Mind’ by Jeremy Narby, Jan Kounen, and Vincent Ravalec

The Psychotropic MindOriginally published in 2008 under the title ‘Plantes et chamanisme, Conversations autour de l’ayahuasca & de l’iboga’, this English translated edition, entitled ‘The Psychotropic Mind’, was published by Park Street Press in 2010. The book is a trialogue between the anthropologist Jeremy Narby, and writers and film-makers Vincent Ravalec and Jan Kounen. It covers a range of topics around psychotropic plants and their cultural use—including the authors’ own experiences.

Three individuals gathered in 2007 to have the conversation that makes up The Psychotropic Mind: The World According to Ayahuasca, Iboga, and Shamanism. For an English-speaking audience, it is perhaps only Jeremy Narby who is instantly recognizable. His counterculture classic The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge (1998) has reached a very wide audience, and to high acclaim. However, his co-conspirators are no-less worthy of being involved in this project. Writer and film-maker Vincent Ravalec has published novels, novellas and non-fiction books, including the work Iboga, alongside numerous films. Jan Kounen has a similarly diverse filmography and bibliography, including the film Blueberry, l’experience secrete (2004), released in the US as Renegades. Together, the three of them entwine humour, insight and opinion into a very engaging narrative.

Jan: What is a human being? You have information on important things like death, the possibilities of encounters with other dimensions of reality that seem connected with this reality, but that I only learned with the help of plants. This causes your profound ideas about reality, life, and all that to turn upside down. So it really fucks things up, even if the experiences are incredibly beautiful. I have to admit, I was completely lost when I came back. Maybe not lost but on the brink (Narby 22)

There is a range of topics discussed in the book. However, predominantly, they revolve around the use of ayahuasca in South America, an experience all three people have insight with. Although, with Ravalec’s knowledge of iboga, this becomes an interesting counterpoint, as the writer was initiated into a Bwiti ceremony in Gabon, Africa. In reading the text, one begins to get a very different sense of the cultural milieu in South America and Africa—the latter is described in its capacity as the cradle of humanity, more earthy, rugged and essential, while the former is a matrix of change, movement, and adaption. Yet, the psychotropic journeys they entail, although providing their own unique idiosyncracies, are cast as passages through which the individual travels. Iboga, in Gabon, is a initiatory moment, and ayahuasca, for the Westerners who seek it out, is a process of healing, renewal and realisation.

As a constructed text, The Psychotropic Mind is very interesting as it entails its own creation. As the narrative unfolds, the participants actively debate the topics they deem worthy of inclusion and, moreover, the original conversation was conducted in French, transcribed to textual form, and then translated into English for this edition. Just as ideas become realised through the psychotropic process, so to the ideas of the text have also come to a genesis of their own. For the text to still contain the debate elements of inclusion goes to show the extent to which the journey in itself is as, if not more, important than the end goal.

Vincent: I think that one of the differences between iboga and ayahuasca is that with iboga you are going to really touch this in depth; in other words, iboga is truly going to peel you apart almost cell by cell and is going to read your memory. Doing it in Africa is really going to confront you with the birth of Africa. More than South America, in my opinion […] And because of this, you are going to stumble upon things that are terrifying because of their archaic nature (Narby 142)

One of the aspects that they discuss, of itself and of its necessity within the conversation, is the dark side of ayahuasca use. This functions across two domains. Firstly, the use of shamanic sorcery, magical darts, and the ability of shamans to use their powers out of jealousy and spite. It is, they say, something that Westerners should be aware of—especially New-Agers who have the fantastical vision of an indigenous world of love and peace. Secondly, it is the interaction of certain pseudo-shamans with the influx of Western seekers—which takes the form of charging extortionate prices, taking sexual advantage and their ultimate failure to control the powers they profess to understand, leaving seekers more lost than when they arrived. As such The Psychotropic Mind functions as, not only a broad philosophical framework with interesting insight, but also as an information guide that is invaluable to the Western journey-person.

Set over two discussions, the text gives the reader an insight into the spirituality of both the participants and the traditions they describe. There is great humour and seriousness juxtaposed together, and a friendliness that binds the varying discussion as one narrative. Indeed, as the second discussion concludes on page 160, the participants relax and continue talking and in the final few pages a pure frankness and ease emerges that nicely rounds it off. Overall, The Psychotropic Mind provides the reader with a vision that is neither to rigid, nor dogmatic, and it is its openness that really makes it stand out among other books dealing with ayahuasca.

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  1. July 23, 2013

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