True Hallucinations by Terence Mckenna

True Hallucinations

So far in this investigation into psychedelic literature we have identified a number of ideas that appear to be central components of the genre. In a nutshell; a said work requires firstly a psychonaut, the protagonist who has willing intention to explore their conceptual understanding of the world, secondly the presence of psychedelic drugs that act as the device which enables the exploration and, thirdly, that this exploration takes the form of a change in the protagonists outlook or ‘perspective’. The great Terence McKenna’s True Hallucinations is a brilliant example of this technique.

It seems to me to be right, in taking guidance from our works of literature reviewed here, to now take a look at one of the giants of psychedelic literature Terence Mckenna. However, we are not going to begin with his primary work The Invisible Landscape (TIL) but his biographical book True Hallucinations (TH) that was released almost twenty years later. This is because it examines Mckenna’s own growth as a thinker in a retrospective and historical manner. It is an already ‘developed’ starting point.

Terence Mckenna (1946-2000) was a psychonaut, an ethnobotanist with an interest in philosophy and, of course, a writer. The combination of which gives Mckenna a solid basis for writing some of the key components of psychedelic literature and at the same time acts as a signifier for this sub-genre of psy-lit. His interpretation of the psychedelic experience is bound up with a pre-existing conceptual framework i.e. academia – although it is likely he would reject the strictures of academia within the academy itself!

In analysing his experiences philosophically, Mckenna implies that the nature of his investigation has a far wider application than that of individual, personal reflection; indeed in the detail of his research this ‘fact’ becomes a central theme. Whereas Jeremy Sandford sort an experiential relationship with himself through the use of psychedelic drugs, Mckenna seeks to understand the experiential relationship in the context of the wider world. Ultimately, this is always tends be the outcome of a philosophically-inclined perspective, which is concerned with uncovering meaning and structure of the Self within the world at large.

As an independent scholar whose interests covered both the arts and sciences there are definite trends in his works. The outcome of his understanding is known as the ‘Novelty theory’ and involves a concept called ‘timewaves’. In this review we are not going to go into much detail of the theory itself (TIL is primarily about this and will be covered at a later date) but we are concerned with his methods and objects of investigation and, to a degree, his academic bias. Suffice to say, however, that certain facets of his theory will be touched upon for the necessity of context.

Our primary investigation here is going to be the epistemological threads of TH. This will include looking at some correspondence between Mckenna and other psy-lit writers in the field of ‘knowledge’, philosophical trends and outlining further avenues of investigation for the future. Before this, however, I will outline the events that take place in True Hallucinations.

TH is a narrative of the events that happened to Mckenna and a group of friends (including his brother Dennis) in La Chorrera, in the Colombian Amazonas, when they went in search of the shamanic hallucinogen of the Witoto known as oo-koo-he. However, the primary hallucinogen soon turns out to be the psilocybin mushroom ‘Stropharia cubensis’, which is growing in abundance in the area.

From a series of experiences with the mushroom, an experiment is soon set-up that primarily involves a experiential theory developed by his brother about the ‘fourth-dimensional rotation of matter’ and which involves a restructuring of their understanding of time. The second half of the book is largely concerned with Mckenna’s attempts at forming an understanding of the occurrences of this experiment and to what has subsequently happened to the group involved (most notably his brother.)

For those people with no background in science much of TH will fly straight over the head and indeed, even for those with a background, it is largely speculative. But being a book of academic psy-lit does mean that much of the groundwork information for the theories is researchable and is usually very well cited throughout the book.

A degree of creative imagination doesn’t go amiss however as the general themes are illustrated well enough for you to build a personal picture of what is going on. Coupled with some beautifully descriptive passages of both the Amazon and Mckenna’s hallucinations and some wonderful metaphoric language there is still much in the way of fictonesque substance for the reader to become happily lost in the adventure.


In terms of the genre Mckenna follows several themes that we’ve already identified in other works of psy-lit and expands them further in his own academic style. Early in TH he points to his academic conceptual framework as something he thought might bar him from having a truly open experience, in much the same way we saw Carlos Castaneda struggle between what he thought and what he was shown by Don Juan.

“It [mushrooms] seemed to open doorways into places I had assumed would always be closed to me because of my insistence on analysis and realism”[1]

Unlike Castaneda however there is not an attempt to completely overturn his academic understanding but to incorporate it into the reflection of his psychedelic experience. Mckenna uses both his existing reasoning power and his sensual experience as paths by which he might come to a fuller understanding. Primarily then by using his various faculties he is developing an epistemological construct whereby he is receiving ‘novel’ understanding from his use of the magic mushroom.

“I recalled that there was an instance in ‘The teachings of Don Juan’ where the peyote entity, Mescalito, holds up his hand, and in it’s palm Carlos Castaneda sees a past incident in his life”[2]

Whereas Castaneda understood his experiences with Mescalito on a very singular perspective i.e. he attempted to garner information in an academically dogmatic way (treating his knowledge as an end not a means,) Mckenna’s analysis is very much the approach of an already widening perspective on the situation that is recognized as yet to be fully formed.  Indeed the above quote from TH illustrates Mckenna’s interest in more than his own experience; he is attempting to investigate wider symbology from the genre. There even begins to be a formal structure of psychedelic language evolving:

“The ordeal in the wilderness that all shamans must face had been endured. A step on the path to knowledge had been taken.”[3]

‘The path of knowledge’ is precisely what Don Juan is leading Castaneda along in order to shift his perspective and Mckenna identifies it as the task involved in his use of the magic mushroom.  The primary difference between the two models however is the power of ‘reason’. For Don Juan it is a conceptual framework that acts as a barrier on the path of knowledge; but for Mckenna it is a tool to help you along.

When looking at the Teachings of Don Juan we identified the path of knowledge as the conceptual movement form one perspective to another. For Mckenna it is understood as an inter-dimensional change of perspective. The mechanics of this change Mckenna identifies as the ‘violet psychofluid’ i.e. the material representation of language.

“The material actually is supra-linguistic matter; it is a language, but not made of words – a language which becomes and which is the things it describes. It is a more perfect archetypal Logos. We are convinced through experimentation with these vocal phenomena, with and without the aid of drugs, it will be possible to understand and use translinguistic matter to accomplish any reality, for us to say anything in this voice is to cause that thing to happen”[4]

The process by which the representation takes place and which allows his brother Dennis to produce a specificsound to inaugurate a ‘novel’ appearance of phenomena stems from the theory that psychedelic molecules bind themselves to DNA. In this manner Mckenna saw his research as uncovering a symbolic structure, examining meaning and whether or not it had a significance to the wider world i.e. outside of the group of friends in La Chorrera.

There are a number of people who are cited by Mckenna in his book that seem to have more than just a correlation with his work; they seem to be instead influences on his experience and not subjects of subsequent research into his original ideas. Among these the most notable are Heraclitus, James Joyce and Carl Jung; all for differing reasons. For the purpose of this particular examination the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus is vital, from a philosophically historical perspective, to understand the development of Mckenna’s methods.

Heraclitus was one of the first Western philosophers to propound the theory that knowledge of ‘truth’ could be understood from the point of view of both our senses and our reason; which as we have seen is central to Mckenna’s approach. Not only does it allow the possibility of acquiring knowledge but it also lays the foundations for the methods involved in it’s investigation. One important themes in Heraclitus’ work that is returned to time and time again in TH is the Logos.

“..they [psychedelic & DNA molecules] did broadcast a totality symbol whose deep structures reflects the organizational principles of the molecules of life itself. This totality entered linear time disguised, in the presence of ordinary consciousness, as a dialogue with the Logos. The Logos provided a narrative voice able to frame and give coherency to the flood of new insights that otherwise would have overwhelmed me.”[5]

This is the epistemological point where scientific and philosophical theory are bound. The revelation of the psychedelic experience is transferred through the Logos in a way that Mckenna understands as being transformed through his own conceptual frameworks. So the totality that is propounded here (that is a model of the world in reference to a new understanding of time) is academically cemented because the ‘mystical experience’ can be transferred through pre-existing frameworks.

”This new model of time enables one to have as much of a certain kind of knowledge about the future as it is possible to have – The Logos was concerned to reveal the mechanics of this process and did reveal it as the idea of the timewave.”[6]

The object of this dialogue then is what becomes Mckenna’s ‘Novelty theory’ or ‘timewave’. Here again is an angle that is very similar to the changing perspectives encased in the works of Castaneda; the ability to ‘see’ the world differently.

“A model of the world is a way of seeing, and to assimilate the timewave theory that was forced upon us there is to see the world differently – this idea proposes a fundamental reconstruction of the way in which we see reality. And it can be taught.”[7]

For psy-lit the process of demystification is allowed for by the acquisition of knowledge; this is, in essence, the mechanics of the path to knowledge. Grappling with information and understanding through pre-existing conceptual frameworks stands in contrast the methods we examined with Castaneda; but the basic premise of knowledge and change remain the same. Ultimately this could be seen as the difference between faith and science as sub-genres in psy-lit.


As is to be expected this does open up a number of other important questions. For example, the Logos is the materialization of a so-called other, what is this other? And, over and above that, what new perspective is being illuminated and for what purpose? These are the questions I propose to examine in other works by Mckenna.

Examining the ‘mystical experience’ itself will hopefully begin to reveal the ontology of psychedelic literature and this will be some of the focus of future research. It is worthy to note that much of the philosophical tradition of the twentieth century is concerned with linguistics and language and it is therefore of no surprise to find it having such a prominent place in academic psy-lit. Therefore, I see investigations into structure and meaning playing a key role in this inquiry.

Heraclitus, I feel, plays a larger part in the knowledge contained within psy-lit. We have seen that the Logos plays a crucial role and this itself is worthy of it’s own investigation. Also the idea of the continuum is central in Mckenna’s work and is an important concept in the remaining fragments of Heraclitus. Once we have built a larger picture of the structures and methods of psy-lit there needs to be a broadly philosophical reading of any ntertextuality that exists between the two. Primarily in the unity of opposites and the perpetual flux.

So, in conclusion, TH is not itself a fully contained concept but acts as a pathway into Mckenna’s wider ideas. The sacred mushroom plays an important part but it is obvious from this text that DMT provides the wider hallucinogenic context for the investigations into a timewave or ‘novel’ theory. The details of which we will examine when we look at TIL. As a general note, it is a book that gives some special grounding to psy-lit as having an importance that is greater than merely a ‘good read’ (which undoubtedly it is) and allows a more succinct and methodological  approach to understanding the genre.

[1] True Hallucinations – Terence Mckenna: Rider (1994) P.44

[2] True Hallucinations – Terence Mckenna: Rider (1994) p.70

[3] True Hallucinations – Terence Mckenna: Rider (1994) p.162

[4] True Hallucinations – Terence Mckenna: Rider (1994) p.74

[5] True Hallucinations – Terence Mckenna: Rider (1994) p.194

[6] True Hallucinations – Terence Mckenna: Rider (1994) p.169

[7] True Hallucinations – Terence Mckenna: Rider (1994) p.193

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5 Responses

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