Literature: September 1992
Food Of The Gods
By Terrence McKenna
Since Timothy Leary has turned his attention from psychedelics to computers, it’s been up to someone else to take over the role of spokesperson for the “pro” side in the War On Drugs, not just as apologist but as outright proponent. Terrence McKenna, an ethnobotanist and frequenter of New Age lecture circuits, appears to be just the person. Food of the Gods is his manifesto. The book is subtitled “The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge,” revealing much of the author’s attitude right there. His thesis is that vegetable hallucinogens, namely psilocybin (magic mushrooms), enabled prehistoric primates to “open the dogs of perception” and to evolve patterns of cognition and imagination, catalyzing into the human species. The book also has the sub-subtitle “A Radical History of Plants, Drugs & Human Evolution.” After laying the prehistoric groundwork, he then charts human history as the history of drug use. The book is divided into Dantesque/Miltonicall titled sections: “Paradise,” “Paradise Lost,” “Hell” and “Paradise Regained.” Early man used hallucinogens to achieve ecstasy in shamanic rituals, and McKenna even makes a case for the original Tree of Knowledge as a plant hallucinogen, allowing a glimpse of the Transcendent Other, nature “correctly perceived to be alive and intelligent.”
The idyllic situation of primitive society did not last, however. McKenna maintains that the storage of psilocybin in honey as a preservative, which then fermented, led to the perversion of the rituals into Dionysian Drunkenness. Paradise was lost. The parallels of drug use and cultural structure can’t go without nothing here. McKenna depicts the Goddess religion of the primitives as an ideal from which we have fallen astray, into the paternalistic, dominating earth-ravagers of the Judeo-Christian world. At present, McKenna believes, we are in a “Hell” of addictive behaviors which are life-threatening and spiritually empty. In some ways this is the most interesting section of the book, since it’s the most informative about our times. Did you know that tobacco was not widely smoked in Europe until Columbus introduced it from North America? That sugar addiction is one of the hardest habits to kick? That heroin is no more harmful or physically addictive than tobacco? McKenna links all of these modern substances to the oppression and enslavement of the postindustrial era, and points to their function with the “dominator culture.” The ultimate dominator drug is the “Hidden Persuader,” TV, providing an escape from reality while reinforcing the sanitized cultural values of Big Brother.
How can Paradise be regained? McKenna believes that, although the drugs of “Christian Dominator Culture” are “drugs of the workplace or drugs to dull care and pain,” that “even the West has retained the remembrance of the potential that certain plants hold.” The use of LSD and other drugs in the sixties, and even today, shows that there is still a human obsession with altering consciousness. The problem facing modern society, McKenna argues, is the domination of the human ego, which is the source of all conflict. McKenna proposes a return to the modern versions of age-old “ego flattering” hallucinations—curiously more prevalent in the New World—in order to revive the “archaic,” pre-industrial and pre-literate attitude toward community and nature in order to avoid the destruction of the planet.
This book should really be read in tandem with The Archaic Revival, his simultaneously-published volume. In it, he predicts the end of history, not in the sense of global catastrophe, although that is a possibility—but the end of linear, Cartesian clock time and the return to the “Dreamtime” of prehistoric imagination. He sees both psychedelic drugs and new technologies such as Virtual Reality as instruments for such a return. Curiously, while Food of the Gods represents a return to the physical world of nature, The Archaic Revival hopes for the “dematerialization of culture, to get away from things into the realm of ideas.” The point at which the two intersect is the idea of communal society, which seems to dissolve the individual identities. The Archaic Revival is a journey inward, as Food of the Gods is an outward trek through history and geography, but both have the same destination—a communal reality outside of time.
“Radical” begins to sound like an understatement after reading these books. The underlying assumptions—that drug use is a constant, in fact an indigenous part of human society; that linear history is a psychological aberration; that all of nature is alive and vital—all are reversals of conventional twentieth century wisdom. But his call for a return to pre-history reveals his ideas as not all that different from not-uncommon myths of a fall from grace that are the basis of most orthodox religions. Examined closely, his call for mankind to be saved by a higher power discounts the power of the individual. His programs for legal reform reek of liberal bureaucracy and a distrust of human nature, decriminalizing drugs only to insert government taxation and control. And he dismisses synthetic drugs because they do not have a long history of “shamanic usage,” ignoring the possibility that they might come to have one.
For such a longing to get outside temporality, McKenna’s theories depend a lot on historical evidence, and his own interpretation of history. The logic that comes up from with psilocybin as the “Tree of Knowledge” is not necessarily flawed, but is somewhat contorted. And the leap required to accept his version of human evolution would be radical indeed to most anthropologists. But that’s beside the point, since the book, for all its enlightening facts about drug culture, reads better as myth, though clothed in the robes of scholarly work. If myth is the past projected into the future, then accuracy is not the most crucial aspect, but internal coherence and the potential to be catalyzed into belief and action, which are all here.
McKenna’s style of ritual and his belief in the way drugs should be used differs greatly from that of Timothy Leary. There is little place for casual drug use here, little of the sense of playfulness of Leary. Drugs are regarded here with the reverence of sacrament. The communal life would be one of unity with nature, lacking in hostility; but what would replace war as play does in Leary’s theories? For all of McKenna’s utopianism, his ideas seem regressed and almost Luddite. While Leary seemed to promote LSD almost as a way to aggrandize the ego—and that would produce problems—McKenna’s antipathy toward the ego would produce its own host of difficulties. Leary’s use of psychedelics seemed to point toward a way for further evolution of the species, but McKenna seems to be urging us to return to an evolutionary gateway through which we have already passed.
Still, Timothy Leary was made a laughing stock by the intellectual community, and McKenna’s books represent a serious attempt to make a case for change in attitudes toward drugs. Both writers deserve to be read. McKenna’s work adds a rich cultural perspective to the argument against the War On Drugs as an excuse to wage war on the people of different cultures. The book is without apology, and for this it should be commended.
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