THE DRUG ISSUE: It's time to start being realistic about magic mushrooms
BY ARI MESSER
Wednesday August 19, 2009
The psychedelic experience is perfectly, if unintentionally,
expressed in a poetry collection: Too long I took clockwork as a
model instead of following the angle my inclinations make with the
ground. So writes Rosmarie Waldrop in A Key into the Language of
America (New Directions, 1994), a book based on Rhode Island founder
Roger Williams's 1643 guide of the same name. The most "meditative"
poets, from Milton and Blake to James Merrill and Denise Levertov,
are often those who have reworked historical texts. The same could be
said about scholars of psychedelics. Forget about Aldous Huxley's
exaggerated diatribes and everything by Carlos Castenada. The "doors
of perception" aren't opened by self-indulgent rambles of the "I'm a
spiritual person" variety.
In 2007, sick of the ingrained pop mythologies surrounding
psychedelics (and realizing, it seems, that such pseudoscience isn't
helping make the case for legalization), British scholar Andy Letcher
published Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom (Harper
Perennial, 384 pages, $14.99). Though he spends quite a bit of time
debunking myco-myths that I'd imagine are only actually believed by
people while tripping Santa Claus is a giant, speckled variety of
the Amanita genus; Stonehenge was like a Dead show without the music
the double-PHD Letcher gives a solid sense of magic mushrooms as
they moved through history, and we moved with or tripped over them.
Letcher uncovers how little we can possibly know.
Because mushrooms can "simply be picked and eaten," Letcher explains,
there is "not a single instance of a magic mushroom being preserved
in the archaeological record anywhere." Drugs and apparent
representations of magic mushrooms that have been found have had
other, nonintoxicating uses, from food to insulation, or have been
doctored up to appear trippy, as with one example of Neolithic rock
art widely distributed through self-declared visionary Terence
McKenna's books McKenna's then-wife, Kat Harrison, actually made
the drawing from a photo, adding her own interpretation.
I once heard prankster Paul Krassner relate the tale of his first
psychedelic escapade. After his mind returned, he said, it seemed
like a good idea to call his mother and express his elation (the
rational part of his mind must have still been distracted). Her
hilarious response was perhaps culled from the jumbled logic of the
war on drugs: "Watch out," she pined into the phone. "I've heard that
LSD can be a gateway drug to ... marijuana!"
Letcher shares this realistic sense of humor about the life of drugs.
Before picking apart proponents of the otherworldly "ancient
mushrooming thesis," he offers them room to breathe. He is ultimately
interested in the cultural evolution of the West's "yearning for
enchantment" in response to changes that have occurred since the
industrial revolution. "That we in the West have found value in those
remarkable mushroom experiences, where almost all others before us
have regarded them as worthless," he notes, "means that in a very
real sense we could claim to be living in the Mushroom Age." He
explores how McKenna's death in 2000 left the psychedelic movement
without an "obvious figurehead" and how the need to paste our modern
sensibilities onto "a pre-historic religion or tabu" (as
shroom-popularizer Gordon Wasson wrote in a letter to Robert Graves
in 1950), is just an urge.
Post-McKenna, what is the destination of the psychedelic movement's
next trip? A new book, Mushroom Magick (Abrams, 144 pages, $19.95),
is respectable for its clear motivations and gorgeous, thorough
design. It's a little too much fun, consisting of over 100 lush,
full-page watercolors by Arik Roper, whose shrooms "grow from the tip
of my pen without much effort." Incomplete but clear field notes by
Gary H. Lincoff and an essay by Erik Davis offer tasty morsels, and
the short bibliography points to useful resources such as Paul
Stamets' field guides. But Daniel Pinchbeck's foreword follows the
same trajectory that Letcher so carefully deconstructs. I'm afraid
that Mushroom Magick ultimately presents as recreational something
that, with or without New Age revisionism, clearly has a deeper,
revelatory role to play in human affairs.
And that's not furthering the discussion, that's a little irresponsible.