Eulogy for Terence McKenna By CloudsSoSwift, 2010-07-08
I'm fascinated by Terence McKenna because he had the largest number of profound insights of any thinker that I've encountered, excepting perhaps Alfred North Whitehead, William James and Richard Tarnas. Although he was a fine writer, the mode of communication in which he truly excelled was verbal, a mode which allowed him an intuitive, performative spontaneity as well as the ability to express many thoughts that had never been articulated before with that level of clarity and precision. Of course he wasn't right all the time, but he valued profusion over irrefutability, a dialogic openness rather than a rigorous but closed system. He was not so interested in finding a few pet ideas and using institutionally sanctioned means to defend those ideas, which is the job of most scholars and intellectuals. Rather, like all genuinely great explorers, he wanted to keep going further, discovering avenues of perusal that had never been walked, or at least spoken of, clearing a space in which others could do the easier work of drawing maps and ultimately colonizing those frontier areas of consciousness. He was clearly aware of his place in the scheme of things and, as he often said, in his humorous way, that he didn't believe very strongly in any one hypothesis. He was a pragmatist in the truest sense of the word in that he followed the directions of thought that seemed to be most interesting, valuable, illuminating, and true to him regardless of how socially accepted those ways of thinking about reality were. Listening to one of his incandescent rants, there are often moments when I would like to question him, push him to be a bit more rigorous on a particular question, or even, on occasion, flat-out disagree with him. However, this imperfection does not stop me from thinking that Terence was one of the two or three most brilliant thinkers of his generation. He was honest about the fact that he didn't have the answers to everything, but also about the fact that he had come up with far more good answers than just about anyone else.
His DMT "elf-machines" and his theories about aliens and 2012 are, certainly, the most accessible of his theories because they're the most outlandish, and he was well aware of this ironic situation. Terence wasn't so much interested in proving his theories within the old paradigm that privileges verbal and logical intellect over intuitive, somatic, epiphanic, mystical and affective epistemological modes as he was interested in inhabiting a mode of thought in which imagination, mystical experience, and the use of psychoactive plants produced "real effects," to use William James' phrase. In fact, he's not so different from an academically well-respected philosopher like James who, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, writes about drug-induced states that transform people's ideas, and thus the way they live their lives, for the better. And he's certainly not so different from Jung from whom he cribbed most of his ideas about UFOs being a manifestation of the human soul which has been concrescing towards exteriorization since our ancestors possibly ingested mycological specimens on the African grasslands tens of thousands of years ago, first for sustenance and then for the way it affected their consciousness. As he said a number of times in different ways, Terence's DMT experiences were an attempt to articulate through language and metaphor real things that are pushing the edge of impossibility to be comprehended. Of course his experiences were unique to him: everyone has their own particular relationship to chemicals, their own unique perspective, and their own subjective archetypal complexes. However, he was able to express these experiences with a fluid, aesthetic effulgence I have never encountered in any other speaker.
Terence was certainly asked a lot of questions about the DMT elves, partially because simply hearing his answer is profoundly pleasurable, but also because his audience needed the validation that their psychedelic experiences were real and significant and valuable. Hearing him talk about his experiences in such a precise, descriptive, and confident way gives others the courage to talk about their own experiences and try to find the vocabulary to express the "felt reality of immediate experience" when that experience is pushed to its limits. However, his main topics of discussion were primarily based on syntheses and explorations of things that he had read, from the Greeks to the medieval alchemists and gnostics to Kurzweil and Moravec, Jaynes and McLuhan, Whitehead and Jung, Shulgin and Hofmann. He had a deep understanding of the quantum, fractal, and teleological nature of reality, as well as the qualitative and exponential nature of time. He was aware that ego is something that should be periodically dissolved through ecstatic ritual, but that it is also impossible to function in the world without ego. As he said, when you go to dinner, you need an ego to know whose mouth to put the food in.
What Terence understood is that the world is made of language, as he was so fond of saying — that the symbolic systems that make up our world view elicit the world from the raw data of experience. This is the paradigmatic insight of postmodernism turned on its head — that the world really is in some sense a construct, but it is a constructed work of art that we are participating in the creation of through the employment of all of our faculties: imaginal, rational, mystical, empirical, intuitive.