Pharmako/Dynamis by Dale Pendell

Originally published in 2002 ‘Pharmako/Dynamis – Stimulating Plants, Potions & Herbcrafts’ is Dale Pendell’s follow up to his excellent ‘Pharmako/Poeia’, and deals with the Excitantia and Empathogenica classes of psychoactive plants. This review is written from the 2010 updated edition, which continues the author’s stroll through the ‘poison path’, in poetic, scientific and historical fashion.

Underlying the sometimes dizzyingly varied facts of the poison path lies a very literary theory but one that, at the same time, penetrates at the very heart of drug theory: “Books themselves are poisons: revealing, teaching, seducing; the letter of orthodoxy or the seed of subversion” (Preface). Pharmako/Dynamis is no exception to this observation, wherein the author, Dale Pendell, has not shied away from illuminating the dark sides of drug history with the light and vice verse. Yet, having said that, this is not a simple chronology or single line of flight: “The structure is three dimensional and holographic. Start anywhere. Read backwards. A book is linear by nature, but that is only a single projection—other cut-ups might make more sense” (Preface). What makes this text so remarkable is this openness.

The book opens where the last – Pharmako/Poeia – left off, by continuing to surf across the many facets of the poison path. However, the two subjects of investigation are different to the previous, as the text under question here deals with the excitantia and empathogenica classes. Each have their own particular relationship to history and, moreover, their own particular relationship with the individual who decides to employ them; be that with themselves or as a commodity.

Pendell discusses the excitantia category in terms of time and duration, embedding it in Bergsonian philosophy that was first utilised to explain the drug experience by Aldous Huxley. However, unlike Huxley who concentrated on psychedelics and Henri Bergson’s theory of perception, Pendell is changing the nature of the territory and the elements of theory he employs. The excitantia, which includes plants like Coffea Arabica, Camellia sinensis (tea) and Theobroma cacao (cocoa), along with the amphetamines and Erythroxylum coca (from which cocaine is derived), already have a history of this time connection; Sadie Plant’s Writing on Drugs (1999) for example utilises the idea of ‘speed’ in a similar manner with amphetamines. However, Pendell begins to multiply this linear understanding as ‘duration’, as events within become multi-layered.

The book continues the theme of inter-disciplinary explanation, that arch’s over all Pendell’s poison work, wherein ideas and flights interpenetrate one another; like the plant Coffea arabica for example. Several “species” of coffee, though geographically, morphologically and ecologically distinct, are inter-fertile. In other words, botanically speaking, any strict linear categorisation can be ‘mashed up’, as it were, because they are not in competition but rather in duration with one another. Pseudo-historically, this duration is a mythological blanket on which to unfold; Pendell retells the story of Khaldi, the young goat herd who purportedly first discovered the properties of coffee beans. Then layered on again, is the human element that historicises our modern relationship. He recounts the story of a French officer Gabriel-Mathieu de Clieu who stole the coffee plant from Arabia and “was assisted by a lady of the court whom he had broken into in another manner” (Pendell 21), thus delivering the means of production to the West.

That drugs become agents of multiplicity is at the heart of the book and the way in which this agency plays out as the content of a drug analysis, or what Dave Boothroyd called a ‘narcoanalysis’, is nearly always in a socially or culturally contingent form.  Take, once again, Coffea arabica for example: “The history of global coffee production is a laboratory for world system theory: of the interplay of globalized markets with domestic politics, and the reciprocal tensions between social classes, public institutions, and the modern nation state” (Pendell 38). Politics, economics, geography; these are all studies through the agency of drugs. Revolutions have been plotted over coffee, democracies have been re-elected, and so to study coffee is to be political in the very act of reading itself. Socially successful drugs like coffee, tea and chocolate are indistinguishable from the social worlds they inhabit. They are embedded characters that, at once, try to hide their history from us but yet reappear in our hands, and in our advertising, on a daily basis.

It is not only the better known drugs of excitantia that Pendell explores. There is also Ilex vomitoria (also contains caffeine,) Cola Nitida (once used extensively by Coca-cola,) Areca catechu (betel, which has archaeological evidence for its use dating back to between 7000-5500 BCE in North-west Thailand,) Ephedra sinica and Catha edulis (better known as khat.) Yet, the two heavyweights of this category stand out imperiously within the text: Amphetamines and cocaine. There are some famous interjections of amphetamine use in the text, Pendell writes: “Jack Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans on benzedrine in three days. He mounted a role of shelf paper on a coat hanger and fed it into his typewriter so he wouldn’t have to stop writing to change sheets” (Pendell 151). And cocaine had its famous compatriots like Sigmund Freud and the comedian Richard Pryor; perhaps it is only a drug that could connect these two people, and what a locked room containing both of them it would be; the mind boggles.

That there is enough pain in the world already. That I hear you, my brother. That I can feel that. (Pendell 199)

Pendell talks about Nutmeg as Mother Nature’s empathogen, a seed that is able to bring about intense inter-personal feelings between people. He also talks about GBH (γ-Hydroxybutyric acid) but of main concern in our society, to this book and to this review is the far more culturally formalised chemical make-up of MDMA (3,4 Methylenedioxymethamphetamine). MDMA has a well-documented history that begins with its synthesis by Merck Pharmaceuticals in 1912. Shelved as unremarkable, it was not until the popular intensity of ‘ecstasy’ took hold, after it was resynthesised and tested by Alexander (Sasha) Shulgin that the drug came into social focus. Pendell builds a tapestry around MDMA, from a Rupert Sheldrake experiment that appeared to indicate the existence of empathogenic qualities in the drug; to the drug’s intimate relationship with the British rave scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the experiments of the empathogen really came to fruition in non-isolation, and in a manner that is still being felt in today’s free party, squat party and festival scenes.

In Techno-Trance we have returned to the clock, where our excited journey began. The great devouring machine—not broken but attuned. Stamp mills, conveyors, pulling vinyl off the line, working at the machine’s pace. Mills, coal burning, Babbage and Ada somewhere making drawings and equations. Accepted and worshipped, that the great cracking of the continuum devour all thought, all traces of conception, every beginning swallowed up as it emerges from the coils of the serpent that is itself the devourer (Pendell 219)

The book ends with Dream Stutters; a wander on the poison path and what seems like a very metaphoric place for the whole of drug-literary-theory (for desperate want of a better term.) The dream is the common ground between the psychological threads of the book, along with the dream of Eastern verse, which also pervades the textual understanding that Pendell constructs: “Paths differ in emphasis, if not in ends. Some tend towards heart, some towards mind; some towards faith, some towards freedom” (Pendell 228). The book is a stepping out through the dream, a chance to push the realities of closed doors out into the open. The inter-empathogenic quality of all the various threads gives rise to a powerful statement about not only drugs and texts, but of those odd little creatures that employ them to draw new lines everyday. Once again, an excellent book and highly recommended.

Via the House

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1 Response

  1. Excellent review Rob, it has been a while when I read this amazing book, so it is a nice refreshment!

    “Underlying the sometimes dizzyingly varied facts of the poison path lies a very literary theory but one that, at the same time, penetrates at the very heart of drug theory: “Books themselves are poisons: revealing, teaching, seducing; the letter of orthodoxy or the seed of subversion””

    This reminds me of something I’ve been reading in another and very new and very excellent psychedelic book called ‘Darwin’s pharmacy, sex, plants, and the evolution of the Noösphere’ by Richard M. Doyle. I quote (p.36):

    “Hence while there is little confidence in language’s capacity to represent the effects of psilocybin, mescaline, of ayahuasca, trip reports, anthropological testimony, and oral traditions are all nonetheless implicitly oriented to the linguistic management of psychedelic states. This management extends to the use of trip reports themselves to orient the psychedelic experience, to act as the recursive ‘set and setting’ of psychonautic practice. […] Aldous Huxley’s famous description of his mescaline experience in the Doors of Perception becomes then less a revelatory text providing the keys to the infinite and more a text for programming and tuning the reader’s attention toward our evolutionary situation: imbrication with a whole, an interconnection whose hallmark is often phenomenologically infinte exctasies”

    He’s got a whole chapter devoted to this theme called: ‘The flowers of perception: Tripreports, stigmergy, and the Nth person plural.’

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