The Archaic Revival By Terence McKenna

‘The Archaic Revival’ was originally published in 1991. The book is a collection of articles, essays and interviews with psychonaut Terence McKenna, which he describes as “my explorer’s notepad, my journey of travel through time and ideological space. It stretches from the prehistoric veldt of Africa to the unimaginable world beyond the transcendental object at the end of history.”

The full title of this book is ‘The Archaic Revival – Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History.’ The breadth of interests that McKenna speaks and writes on is truly remarkable, however, what makes it so credible, as a collection, is the inter-connectedness of all these various topics.

The topics aren’t simply straws being grasped at random from the underground; McKenna has created a web of understanding that he has gleaned from both his psychedelic experiences and research. Although, of course, much of it is highly questionable (Shroom by Andy Letcher contains a very good exposition of McKenna’s work) it remains an important axiom for the psychedelic movement  and a beautifully crafted field of ideas.

The Archaic Revival is McKenna’s preferred term for the New Age. He skilfully argues that what is necessary is a return of the psychedelic experience into human society via shamanism; as opposed to what he deems as a misleading term ‘new’, which, far from novelty, in fact postulates an environmental return for the species in its recognition of place within it.

A return to shamanism is a contentious academic debate that McKenna frankly discusses in the book. Using Amazonian tribes as the near last active model of shamanism, of whom some tribes use the psychedelic yage and others don’t, presents a historical problem. Mainstream academia believes the ceremonies using the drug to be a perversion of those that don’t and McKenna believes the opposite.

“The tragedy of our cultural situation is that we have no shamanic tradition. Shamanism is primarily techniques, not ritual. It is a set of techniques that have been worked out over millennia that make it possible, though perhaps not for everyone, to explore these areas.”[P.45]

To transform society there is a constant realization that this evolution must begin with the individual. Unlike Timothy Leary, McKenna does not believe this process is for everyone but similarly to the early Leary he does believe that the psychedelic experience can be incorporated into the scientific/academic corpus:

“A new science that places the psychedelic experience at the centre of its program of investigation should move toward a practical realization of this goal – the goal of eliminating the barrier between the ego and the Overself so that the ego can perceive itself as an expression of the Overself.”[p.87]

Beyond the self, society indeed the universe, is heading toward what McKenna called “the transcendental object at the end of time.” The ideas surrounding this breakdown in duality awareness stems from his experiment at La Chorrera that he chronicled in ‘True Hallucinations’ and ‘The Invisible Landscape’.

A great deal of the book’s speculations have been gleaned from this experience with magic mushrooms; including his mathematical framework of time as ‘novelty’ that led him to believe that.. “sometime around the end of 2012 all of this will be boiled down into a kind of alchemical distillation of the historical experience that will be a doorway into the life of the imagination.”[P.215]

Although the formula for his ‘novelty theory’ has since been proven to be wrong and his application of history arbitrary, there remains several elements of mystery unearthed in his research that helped fuel a section of the psychedelic movement in the years following – notably Daniel Pinchbeck – to debate and investigate the 21st December 2012 further. The date we await.

As an introduction into the numerous areas of research that the psychedelic movement began to delve into, post the counterculture mess, ‘The Archaic Revival’ is invaluable. As an insight into one of the most original and articulate thinkers of the 20th century it’s also fascinating. Though many would argue that psychedelics were this great intellect’s downfall, those in support of psychedelia would categorically disagree and, creatively speaking, I tend to agree with them. Good book.

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  1. Brian Akers says:

    ARCHAIC REVIVAL is offers a nice smorgasbord of essays and interviews from the late Terence McKenna, a figure well known and celebrated in popular countercultural circles of recent decades for his wildly speculative discussions of tripping on psychedelics. Two pieces in this book – Voynich ms, and Wasson’s Literary Precursors — are interesting and ok because they’re not too chockfull of nonsense. But the rest of it is pretty consistent with the bulk of his discussion

    I’m sure McKenna was a nice enough guy, for whatever that’s worth — since it has no bearing on the merits of his ideas. Likewise, that McKenna and his fans don’t view DMT and psilocybin in a prejudicially negative way is perfectly fine. Unfortunately it lends no value or merit to the baseless counter-propaganda comprising this book, which does an equal and opposite kind of disservice.

    Like McKenna’s endlessly popular discussion about psychedelics as a whole, ARCHAIC REVIVAL sheds dark, not light. The subject is inherently fascinating and important, and as such warrants serious interest and study. Sadly, McKenna treats it as a soapbox for nonsense. He soaks it in empty hyperbole and controversy, deepening and sharpening the lines that divide one ideological camp from another, while pretending to a progressive approach. Popular interest in psychedelics deserves a thoughtfully balanced, critically informed pursuit of broader positive understanding that builds on and integrates what we’ve managed to find out so far. Not junk food (even “of the gods”).

    From ARCHAIC REVIVAL and his others texts, McKenna was apparently quite a countercultural hardliner. His appeal, narrow as it is, seems to reside in how he combined inflammatory condemnation of Western society and tradition (per PC pseudo-liberalism) with his own unique, peculiar brand of New Age millennial goofy-occultish “metaphysical” speculation – routinely referred to as his “theories” (like 2012 Time Wave Zero, and “stoned apes” etc.). Good news: you may well like this book if your values and tastes resonate with these sorts of things.

    Anyone seeking clear, informed understanding of the complex, profound nature of psychedelic drug effects and experience is likely to be nonplussed by ARCHAIC REVIVAL; unlike those excitedly enthusiastic about the contemporary counterculture’s preoccupations (2012, “hundredth monkey” theorizing, fractal this and chaos theory that, etc.).

    Beneath the surface of McKenna’s “groovy” appeal lies a false ethos that firmly opposes the ‘wisdom of the elders’ and includes considerable animosity — not just toward the religious right either. McKenna and his fans tend to view and portray scientific knowledge, informed thought and critical reasoning in a misconstrued, negative way (much like protestant fundamentalists). This is perhaps understandable; after all, science is no slave to the kind of ideology McKenna expresses, any more than it is to conservative biblical literalism. Dawkins-type arguments notwithstanding, science cannot tell us whether there’s an afterlife, or god(s); but it can powerfully undermine many cherished opinions of bible thumpers and committed new agers alike.

    As wry, perceptive humor, “theories” about why the sea is boiling hot and “speculations” about whether pigs have wings are fine. But McKenna is no Lewis Carroll. He speaks in a passionate, hyper-earnest tone, full of unshakeable conviction, contradicting the oft-heard claim of his apologists, that “he wasn’t serious about all that stuff, he was just kidding.” On impression, the latter brand of apology probably arises from the conflicted nature of McKenna’s pronouncements, often back-peddling into nervous, half-hearted humorous attempts.

    Strangely, McKenna and his enthusiasts, in their intellectual prejudices, resemble the very right-wing fundamentalists they dislike. Both are uncomfy with and unfriendly toward science, because it doesn’t support ideas they push so aggressively. Yet strangely, both often try and bolster their views by selectively cherry-picking from scientific findings. Fundamentalists and McKenna alike try to mess with evolutionary theory, while carefully avoiding or ignoring the bulk of what we’ve learned that doesn’t lend to what they’re trying to do with it (see Chap 10, ARCHAIC REVIVAL).

    As this book shows, McKenna is verbally articulate; but his discussion mostly ranges from incoherent to deeply misinformed. That he advocates psychedelics per se is not a problem. Trouble is, he does it in a way that only adds to the air of discredit and disrepute which has come to surround the subject (unfortunately), lending credence to the worst prejudices against such substances — that they inspire delusional grandiosity and incoherence, irrationality; and any insights or realizations one may come to under their effects are illusory at best, and psychotic at worst.

    UFO contactees of the 1950’s helped make the subject of “flying saucers” ridiculous in the public eye with their pursuit of publicity and attention by telling yarns about nice-looking babes from Venus they’ve met, who even took them along in their spaceship for rides. McKenna does much the same with psychedelics, placing them in a ludicrous light by surrounding them with overtly absurd ramblings that would appeal only to the intellectual equivalent of the gullible minions whose imaginations were enthralled by the colorfully stupid stories Geo Adamski and others like him regaled them with. With the extravagant praise heaped upon it, ARCHAIC REVIVAL and McKenna’s discussion as a whole pose an embarrassing reflection on today’s counterculture per its fashion for lacking both street smarts and scholastic education as well. It displays a striking lack or absence of “critical thinking skills” (to use a sound bite from the education industry).

    A big problem with McKenna is his misdirection of interest, the misleading way he tries to speak for the subject; for example, by trying to discredit meditation (because it’s “boring” — as if it’s purpose is to entertain! … see p. 31), yoga, religious teachings of whatever culture, even including Eastern traditions; or non-drug methods of exploring consciousness or seeking some kind of spiritual connection. McKenna comes off like a poster child for petulant demands for instant gratification, and devaluation of anything that takes time or effort.

    McKenna touts psychedelics as the true and only path to consciousness. Yet he reflects no particular spiritual regard for DMT or his beloved psilocybin mushrooms, such as we see among peoples with longstanding traditional rites centered upon them. In native Mexico, the mushrooms are directly assimilated to the sacred, both native and imported Western concepts. They’re traditionally handled and regarded with greatest respect, spoken of only in private, in a whisper IF AT ALL (“Aurelio advised silence because this was a `very delicate’ matter” – Benitez, 1970, “Los hongos alucinantes”); and then preferably by indirect metaphors or circumlocutions so as not to profane them. In contrast, McKenna treats them in an exploitive, sensationalistic style recalling PT Barnum, reducing them to entertainment for relief of jaded boredom: “Lift up the tent edge and scoot inside where there is light and action. Strike up the band. The elf clowns of hyperspace are already juggling in the center ring. Hurry! Hurry!” (p. 3).

    There are a multitude of things, seldom remarked upon, that are so wrong with McKenna’s “message” and discussion, a book review reply cannot begin to address them. I will cite one particularly egregious example that sticks out like a sore thumb. That McKenna does not moralistically disapprove of psychedelics is, again, fine. But his opposite extreme is recklessly irresponsible, and weirdly moralistic in reverse. He scolds people — for not taking overdoses: “One thing that people do that I’m definitely opposed to is to diddle with it. If you’re not taking so much going into it you’re afraid you did too much, then you didn’t do enough” (p. 15).

    McKenna reflects a disagreeably puritanical streak. He’d have fit in well with the Women’s Temperance League for his railing against drugs like alcohol, that aren’t his choice, aren’t to his taste. It’s plum weird in the merry old land of McKenna, his tongue clucking disapproval of whoever’s choices – considering his vociferous objections to anyone laying any rap on him about his. On parade here is a profound lack of moral reasoning that resembles hypocrisy. It reflects terribly not only on McKenna but more broadly, on today’s psychedelic counterculture insofar as it embraces and celebrates his radically pointless discourse.

    McKenna’s “don’t diddle the dose” admonishment is ethically disturbing. That he wants people going into a trip to be frightened is breathtaking in its irresponsibility. So far, one thing we’ve learned well from sound research is that one’s mindset is a major determinant of the form psychedelic experience takes, the experiential outcome. And the essence of a bad trip is: fear, panic. What’s worse, the chance of “bad trip” increases exponentially with larger doses, especially in certain subjects (depending on their personality and psychological constitution).

    A severe panic trip can cause significant nightmarish stress that may scar and persist for years, like the post-traumatic stress syndrome of soldiers who’ve been through too-heavy action in an intense theater of war. This “heaven or hell” potential of psychedelic drug experience is well known, well documented, and familiar from street experience not just clinical study. It deserves respect and caution, not frivolous denial or trivialization. People have been psychologically harmed, with lasting damage, emotional scarring. Not as many as detractors have claimed, but that doesn’t alter the fact, and is quite beside the point.

    McKenna breezily dismissing such issues, as if they don’t even exist. He comes across blissfully unconcerned, not only for those who might end up in a bad trip following his huckster advice, but for other consequences as well. The legal prohibition such unfortunate casualties have historically helped bring upon psychedelics in our society, by those willing to exploit such tragedies, goes unremarked upon. Perhaps the most troubling reflection from McKenna’s influence, though, is the way his word is so enthusiastically fawned over, applauded as if by an army of trained seals, like it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.

    The countercultural interest in psychedelics postures interest and regard for the promise of exploring consciousness and the psychedelic potential. But that potential is in essence the human potential itself — not contact with some alien realm, or extraterrestrials, or some strange attractor glittering at the end of history (whatever the heck that is supposed to refer to). As such, the popular interest in this subject would do well to wake up, find its voice, and sensibly, intelligently acknowledge the problem of psychedelic Pied Piperism. Their anointed spokesman, the late Terence McKenna, is a major case in point.

    But as I’ve found so far, there seems to be a sort of catastrophic addiction at work here — not to mushrooms, which are not addictive, but to a toxic message exploiting them as its wrapper and badge of legitimacy. In the 1960’s we heard voices of the counterculture saying “tell it like it is.” But such a value seems to have been displaced in our contemporary alternative scene, which supports lockstep conformity to messages such as ARCHAIC REVIVAL offers.

    McKenna and the massive acclaim for his touted “brilliance” or “genius” are probably best understood, in broadly integrated (not narrowly countercultural) view, as direly symptomatic. History is a directional one-way process, and we can’t go back to undo things that have gone wrong. It’s now sadly doubtful we can ever pick up the pieces and put the Humpty Dumpty of our society’s psychedelic hopes and dreams, its possibilities for the future of Western civilization, back together again. ARCHAIC REVIVAL (both in what it says, and in the largely ill-conceived but abundant praise it inspires) is a good mirror reflection why this tragic circumstance should prevail, against ever better wish we might have for humanity and the exploration of consciousness.

    At best perhaps ARCHAIC REVIVAL and its popularity can serve as a warning sign. Maybe it can help alert sharp observers on need-to-know basis, about the state of things in our present countercultural milieu. Situation critical, with no sign of improving or heading that way. But the book can likely help show conscientious eyes what exactly has gone wrong in the course of modern psychedelic history, especially in terms of the popular interest it has elicited, as it continues to do.

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