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Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna

A review of Terence McKenna's Food of the Gods, the Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge

From Pills-a-Go-Go Summer 1994 (issue #20)
Front Cover sez: '...Terence McKenna gets a new asshole.'
Page 12: Book Review, T-Shirt Syllogism
By Will Self

Aldous Huxley, that veteran psychedelic experimenter, once said of his younger and more turbulent acolyte, Timothy Leary, 'If only Tim weren't such a silly ass...' This could serve as a blanket condemnation for most of the philosophically inclined figures who owe their mind-set to the cultural revolutions of the sixties.

Certainly Terence McKenna is a silly ass. But his heart is so clearly in the right place, and so much of what he says is a fresh synthesis of a collection of sixties ideas, that are rumbling on into the nineties, and acquiring further arational acolytes, that his book, Food of the Gods, deserve some careful attention.

Food of the Gods, follows from Flesh of the Gods, the seminal collection of papers on the ritual use of hallucinogens, edited by Peter Furst and published in 1972. The theory that McKenna puts forward, is an honest and heartfelt attempt, to move the issue of drug-induced intoxication to center stage.

McKenna is a believer in an unusual form of dialectial materialism, for the material in question is any psychoactive substance, whether crack cocaine or cane sugar. He holds that cultural form can be "read off" from the drugs ingested by any given population group. Thus, "Dominator" cultures, which McKenna thinks are a Bad Thing, are exemplefied by their use of alcohol and tobacco; whereas "Partnership" cultures, an empathically Good Thing, are hip to the use of psilocybin mushrooms, marijuana, and especially dimethyltryptamine, an extremely powerful, short-acting psychedelic drug, found in the ayahuasca and yopo of the Amazonian rainforest shamen.

DMT is McKenna's favorite drug. He writes of "the most profound of the indole hallucinogen-induced ecstasies, the rarely encountered but incomperable experience of smoking dimethyltrayptamine." And in this lies one of the admirable aspects of McKenna's work: he is not a man who is afraid to join in the debate on drugs at a level, which implies giving positive account of the social and spiritual value of intoxication. Most contemporary writers fall foul of this, precisely because of their fear of being tarred with the Leary brush.

McKenna sees the World in the blue-grey flesh of the psilocybin mushroom. He is a meta-Kantian, holding that the very phenomenon of sentiience itself is a function of a symbiotic relationship between homo sapiens and the plant species that contain psychoactive alkaloids.

Just as Darwinists identify even secondary qualities such as color as being impacted upon by natural selection, so McKenna goes several steps further. For him the "wetware" of our minds is profoundly bound up with our own ecoysystem. this he characterizes as the "Gaian biosphere'. By this McKenna means a self-regulating planetary organism, a "transcendent Other," a "Vegetable Mind." Although why vegetables shoud necessarily have the upper designatory hand is beyond me. After all, the biosphere is just as much a function of purely chemical reactions; so this must be another unfortunate example of McKenna's proclivity for seeing the world in the gills of a mushroom.

His theories are challenging and germain, the trouble is that McKenna defelops it with a series of arguments that can be characterized as "T-Shirt Syllogisms." One such is: "Agriculture brings with it the potential for overproduction, which leads to excess wealth, hoarding and trade. Trade leads to cities; cities isolate their inhabitants from the natural world." This sounds uncomfortably like: "If I drink, I get drunk. If I get drunk I fall over. If I fall over..." etc.

McKenna doesn't seem to see that his refusal to acknowledge the wholly reciprocal relation between human consciousness and drug "effect" (Leary's concept of "set" and "setting," which he quotes with approval), leads to a biological reductionism that smacks suspiciously of the kind of Scientism he is keenest to refute.

On a more prosaic level, it is by no means certain that the plant alkaloids McKenna so reveres, "play an active part in the plant organisms they occur within." This would be crucial to his Plant/God theories McKenna is promoting.

A more traditional view is that the adaptive advantage of many alkaloids (many of which are highly toxic), for the plant species that contain them is as poisons. This would make sense. After all, what could be a better way of ensuring -- if you are a mushroom -- that you will only be eaten by a small group of McKenna-minded hominids, than synthesising psilocybin?

McKenna trawls for the usual suspect evidence and arguments in social anthropology, to put forward the now largely discredited theory, that at some point in the human past, there existed a pacific, pastoral Ur-Culture, an Eden from which we have all been expelled. McKenna is confused about self-consciousness, because on the one hand it is our bit of the Gaian mind, the "Transcendent Other," and on the other it is so clearly the substratum of the nasty, meat-eating, tooth-rotting, ego obsession, which he blames for the "moral decadence" we now face.

In Food of the Gods, McKenna argues persuasively for a freeing of the market in drugs, remarking pithily at one point that, "any society that can tolerate the use of a drug such as alcohol, can cope with just about anything." But it's a shame his monomania for shrooms didn't allow him to recall that Bwitiists, the Fang adherents to the only extant psychedelic religious ritual in the Old World, hold that the "ecstasies" they achieve through chanting and drumming are superior to those induced by ibogaine, one of McKenna's precious harmaline alkaloids.

McKenna also turns his back on all drugs he associates with the "Dominator" cultures, leading him to some tendentious reasoning concerning the use of tobacco plants in Central American shamanic ritual.

Obviously the idea of human consicousness breaking through the meniscus of conditioned ontology under the influence of a pack of Marlboros is too much for him to bear.

McKenna also digs into the controversies concerning the identity of "soma," the ancient ecstatic drug of the Rig Vedas; and attempts to prove it was not fly agaric.

Unsurprisingly, McKenna plumps for another mushroom, Stropharia cubensis, which contains his beloved psilocybin. It is just as possible that soma may have derived from the opium poppy; not something McKenna would look kindly on.

McKenna is an active guru. His ideas chime in with the lifestyles of the growing numbers of New Agers, or "Archaic Revivalists" as he would term them. And for that reason it is depressing to conclude that if -- as one of McKenna's source thinkers, Marshall McLuhan, opined -- the medium is the message, then we have a steadily lengthening, ever-billowing cosmic clothesline of McKenna's T-shirt syllogisms to look forward to.

The Deoxyribonucleic Hyperdimension