Crowdfund Acquisitions #1 – Gnosis Magazine (First Issue, 1985), Review of ‘True Hallucinations’ Talking Book

This post will be the first in a series where I share the fruits of The Terence McKenna Archives crowdfund campaign.

I have just acquired the first of two major purchases with the money derived from our ongoing crowdfund. Over the weekend, on my way to a conference in Berkeley, I stopped in San Francisco, at the apartment of Jay Kinney, who was the editor of Gnosis magazine (1985-1999). Terence McKenna appeared on the pages of Gnosis numerous times over the course of its history and he and Kat were among its earliest subscribers and supporters (as you’ll see later in this post). Jay also tells me that Terence was instrumental in helping Gnosis to acquire its first, game-changing, high-end laser printer, for a substantial discount, via Terence’s Timewave programmer, Peter Meyer.

I purchased a full set of the entire run of Gnosis magazine from Jay and will be making posts on Terence McKenna-related material that appears within individual issues as I work my way through the collection.

I’ll start, here, with Gnosis #1 (Fall/Winter 1985)

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Terence and Kat were among the earliest ‘Helping Subscribers’ (donating $20 in addition to a $15 subscription), which helped allow The Lumen Foundation to publish 5,000 copies of this first issue.

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By 1985, Terence had only previously published The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching, which wasn’t widely distributed and would have been out of print, and Psilocybin Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide, which did sell widely, was authored under a pseudonym, O. T. Oss (both books co-authored with his brother Dennis), and his public speaking career was relatively fresh. The True Hallucinations talking book had, however, just been produced and was positively reviewed, in this first issue of Gnosis, by Ted Schulz.

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This is a book about the kind of revelatory mystical experience that is induced by psychedelic substances. It’s also a book about an exotic expedition undertaken by five friends bound together by a mutual inquisitiveness, especially about subjectively-experienced ethnopharmacology. And it isn’t a book at all, but an eight-cassette “talking book” with fine production quality and effective use of modest sound effects and music.

In 1971, Terence McKenna and his brother Dennis, along with three friends, all young American middle-class intellectuals, set off on a journey into Columbia’s Amazonian wilderness, seeking out the remote area inhabited by the Witoto Indians, a tribe noted for its use of certain psychoactive substances. There, according to plan, they entered the equally lush and far less understood jungle of psychedelic consciousness, as they experimented with ever larger and increasingly frequent doses of the locale’s plentiful psilocybin-containing mushrooms. Terence in particular had prepared for this inner journey, having devoted a number of years to the study of revelatory mystical experience and having pursued a variety of spiritual teachings in exotic locations around the globe. This preparation notwithstanding, he and his brother returned from their experiment changed men, to spend perhaps the rest of their lives constructing theories about that overwhelming experience, as they continue to ask “What happened?”

The McKenna brothers proposed their rigorously phrased answer to this question in their work, The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching (1975, Seabury Press), a serious and carefully constructed cosmology that synthesized their Amazonian revelations. But it is in True Hallucinations that Terence has chosen to tell the human side of the story, in all the untidy detail of a sincere quest made by faltering and confused seekers-after-truth. Normally, the thought of spending nine-and-a-half hours listening to a psychedelic veteran recount his most memorable trips would leave me cold, but McKenna pulls off the feat of entertaining in the process. the backbone of his narrative is an account of the party’s voyage along the Putumayo River, of their difficult overland trek, and their surroundings at their destination, La Chorrera, and it is to this linear ground that he continually returns after flights into psychedelic theory and cosmic philosophy. The story has much of the appeal of an adventure travelogue, with the curious twist of an unusual cast of characters with an even more unusual purpose. Along the way, the intrepid band meets a number of eccentrics, including the leader of a cult of displaced Americans who divines with a Ouija board and is accompanied by a monkey that is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ; and a cocaine-crazed, paranoid, and megalomaniacal anthropologist who has fallen victim to the excessive habit of the tribe he meant to study.

In McKenna’s wry recounting, the dynamics between the five members of this amateur ethnopharmacological expedition are, in the lighter moments, diverting in the manner of a New Age soap opera. At other times they take on the aspect of allegory, reflecting the diametrical human reaction to the power of the psychedelic experience as the group ultimately splinters intro two factions. On the one hand, three people, Terence, his lover, Ev, and his brother, Dennis, continue to ingest copious quantities of the mushrooms, convinced that they are working toward a goal of ultimate importance — the creation of a literal, physical doorway to a higher dimension. On the other hand, the two remaining members of the group back off, alarmed at what they perceive as pre-psychotic behavior in the McKennas. It is, in fact, Dennis McKenna’s extremely crazed behavior that finally precipitates the group’s premature departure from their jungle base and their return to civilization, but it is also through his brother’s behavior that Terence McKenna is stimulated into some of his most meaningful breaks into higher reality.

McKenna describes instances of telepathy, clairvoyance, materialization of lost objects; glimpses of alien beings and higher dimensions; of disembodied voices speaking portents. he describes UFO/flying saucer symbolism and visions, culminating in his climactic and life-changing encounter with an alien craft.  Did these things have an objective reality outside the drug experience? McKenna treats this issue with intelligence and bemusement, and this is what elevates his account from mere psychedelic theory-mongering into a genuine, candid inquiry into the nature of the psychedelic experience and of the solutions to the existential questions the experience intimates. I’m left with an impression of McKenna honestly and humbly seeking the truth through psychedelics, and receiving for his answer an outpouring of mysterious symbology.

Now, some fourteen years later, McKenna is in a position to tell this retrospective tale, and to distill the wealth of enthusiasms and revelations in a way that only the leveling of power of such a span of time can provide. This is an important and enjoyable contribution to the lamentably small body of literature of psychedelic understanding.

–Ted Schulz

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