12-19-13-8-18-2 'Etz'nab 11 Xul G7
Daniel Pinchbeck "Breaking Open The Head"
Recently, I read an interview with the author at the Maybe Logic Academy quarterly review--called, funnily enough, "Maybe Quarterly". It piqued my curiosity about Pinchbeck's first book, "Breaking Open The Head"--being a narrative about his disillusion with life as a New Yawk intellectual and his subsequent experimentation with various psychedelic substances. Since I fancy myself a bit of a psychedelic literature connoisseur, I felt I should check this one out. You can read the interview here.
"Breaking Open.." starts with an overview of the book's aims and psychedelics use, especially in the West. Then Pinchbeck whisks the reader off to Gabon, in Africa--where he takes part, after a bit of scary dealings with the local Bwiti tribal leader, in an iboga ceremony. For those not in the know, iboga is a rootbark scraped from a particular tree, that when ingested, produces a long trance-state in which visions are beheld. Pinchbeck goes through with the ceremony and records his trip in detail--which proves to be one of the more interesting parts in the book.
He explores the sacred mushrooms of Mexico and remarks on Gordon Wasson, one of the first Westerners to seek out the mushroom cult. There's a chapter devoted to Walter Benjamin--a social theorist whom I've not read anything by. Pinchbeck seems to link up Benjamin's thinking to his own psychedelic quest--of which some seems to fit and at other points seems a bit of a strain--but Pinchbeck's writing style rescues the chapter from any over-pretentiousness.
From there, its on to the Amazon rain forest for initiation into the mysteries of ayahuasca, a potion made from a vine and various other plants, noted for it's foul taste. It also produces a trance state--though quite different from psilocybin mushrooms and iboga. A few tedious chapters on the Burning Man festival follow. "Burning Man" is the American equivalent of Glastonbury, only without the bands. It started in the mid-80s as a freeky Californian beach party--then expanded out into the Nevada desert flatlands. A magnet for all the weird, misfit, counter-cultural types--it happens once a year for a week. Like Glasto, though, it is becoming bigger, which leads to higher ticket prices and a distilling of the original spirit--such as having "luxury" quarters for the high-roller attendees--a have-and-have-not situation--where's the egalitarian, counter-culture notion in that?
Pinchbeck's quest rolls on, smoking DMT, a fast-acting and very powerful hallucinogen, at an 'entheobotany' conference in Mexico. He also re-tells the oft-told fable of LSD and the 60s--though I didn't agree with his facile put-down of Timothy Leary as one of the "central villains" of the "psychedelic revival". Sure, the guy made mistakes, but not taking interest in some of his acid-insights seems to be throwing out the baby with the bathwater, or a simile of your choice.
He also suffers some setbacks, as toward the end of the book, he experiments (with a friend) with DPT--a synthetic chemical relative of DMT--and spirals into a strange realm of "sci-fi, demonic, MTV-postmodernism". When he comes down, strange things start happening in his apartment--until he finally performs a Buddhist meditation to "clear things out". The books events end in India, in a flashback to 1997, where Pinchbeck takes part in the Kumbh Mehla ceremony--which than leads to him accepting the Bwiti iboga ceremony assignment.
I was a bit hesitant about reading this once I found out Pinchbeck was a dyed-in-the-wool New York intellectual, raised by the usual liberal parents, standard 'good school' college education (my own prejudice, to be sure). I found myself quite surprised as his writing style seems mostly grounded and not prone to hipper-than-thou witticisms. Some of Pinchbeck's conclusions will seem familiar to readers of Robert Anton Wilson, or even Tim Leary, such as multiple "realities" and logic other than 'yes' or 'no' experienced while high and reflecting afterward. Of course, he throws in the obligatory "save the planet" and "Western society is corrupt" notions as well--but there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with that to me. I would recommend this book to those who are curious about psychedelics and maybe don't have the patience for R.A.W. or Leary or Terence McKenna just yet (though you should get round to those if the subject interests you).
Also posted at The Bear Pit, with a few alterations.