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True Hallucinations:
by Terence McKenna
Publisher:
Harper Collins 
Year:
1993 
ISBN:
0062506528 
Categories:
Book Reviews
Reviewed by JF, 6/24/2001

As background and disclaimer, I should warn you that I have probably acquired a reputation in some circles as an inveterate McKenna-basher. I’ve done my bit to deserve it, too, by being dismissively skeptical of most of McKenna’s flights of fancy (timewaves, shrooms from space—I hesitate to call them theories) despite having read very little of his actual work. But for whatever reason, I recently found myself with a slightly worn copy of True Hallucinations and sufficient free time to read it. Never mind the causal chain that led up to this—here it is, straight from the horse’s mouth. Or is that mushroom’s mouth…?

To put forward my skeptical foot first, allow me to summarize this work: The year is 1971. A bunch of stoned hippies (including most notably Terence and Dennis McKenna) go prospecting for drugs in the heart of the Amazon. They get some B. caapi (ayahuasca) from the local population, find a bunch of P. cubensis, and immediately proceed to get twisted on both with uncautious abandon. Dennis cooks up some half-assed theory of reality, and Terence swallows it—hook, line, and sinker. More drugs. The brothers go bonkers for a few weeks and become megalomaniacally delusional. Then everything returns to normal, the end, etc., etc., etc.

And yet…despite my skepticism, I would be the first to admit that this account doesn’t remotely do justice to True Hallucinations. McKenna is a skilled and engaging writer; his accounts are fun to read, whether they be whacked out tales of intense trips or descriptions of verdant Amazonian beauty. More than that: he makes me want to believe, makes me gleefully toss away my incredulity and ride with him along the Rio Putumayo, high as a kite on fine Columbian Gold. Thanks to McKenna’s able pen, a dumb hippie dope story metamorphoses into a strangely fascinating and compelling tale of a mythical voyage to the heart of the Jungle (oh, the archetypes!) that leads to an eschatological transformation of human consciousness. This transformation is catalyzed by an ancient interstellar life form that manifests itself on our planet as a hallucinogenic mushroom and attenuated by the harmine in B. caapi, the telepathic vine of the soul.

But come on! McKenna—to his credit—disavows the spiritual authority some seem eager to grant him, and his brother’s half-baked scientific theories have holes in them big enough for a squadron of UFOs. Where’s the justification, then? Where’s the motivation? Admittedly, McKenna has some mildly interesting things to say on some relevant psychedelic topics: the limitations of language, the role of the scientific method, the “truth” of hallucination. But he’s neither saint nor scientist, and the basic raison d’etre of True Hallucinations is a wild flight of unfalsifiable fancy, no matter how hedonistic it may be for himself and his readers.

In light of this, I guess my ultimate question is this: Where do McKenna’s wacky stories take us? What good do they do? Belief can generate reality. Fine. I knew that already. Keep and open mind and a sense of humor—good advice indeed. But beyond that, is there really anything in True Hallucinations that separates it from the silly stories we all tell when we’re stoned? You know, the ones that begin “Dude, I was tripping one time and…” Fun aren’t they? I mean, McKenna provides a roaring good read, but does he really deserve to be earning royalties on his drug-crazed speculations?

Judging from McKenna’s status as prophet and guiding light of the contemporary psychedelic scene, a lot of people are answering that question in the affirmative. So let me conclude with an unexpected recommendation: go read this book. You’ll have fun, and you’ll take something useful away from it, even if it is only a firm conviction that McKenna is crazy. The best explanation I have heard is that McKenna, like Leary, is basically an entertainer. His ideas delight us even though they are most likely totally wrong. Personally, I find McKenna to be a bizarre sort of comedian-philosopher, and not one really to my liking. He tells tall tales that begin with “Wouldn’t it be neat if…”, and I prefer ideas that do more than amuse. Given the choice between the humor of McKenna and that of, say, Chuang Tzu, I will continue to prefer the latter for the element of truth I find lacking in True Hallucinations, despite the title. But your mileage will vary; if you enjoy this book, that is all the justification it needs.

5 Comments »

  1. the author of this review seems not to understand mckenna s ideas, he keeps thinking of a non-hallucinatory status of reality, which is the old authority statement we may trace back in those violent invaders from the past.

    Comment by MarceloDiaz — 11/29/2005 @ 6:29 pm

  2. In response to the above comment…

    I’m relatively experienced with psychedelic drugs and other “altered” states of consciousnes, yet I still see many of McKenna’s “theories” as bullshit. It’s good to be open minded, but not so much your brain falls out. McKenna’s ideas are certainly interesting and though provoking, but I can’t help but be skeptical about them. It might be fine if McKenna described these wacky ideas as just…well…ideas (of a highly altered mental state). Howevever, he seems to go out of his way at times to rationalize them with half-assed pseudo-scientific explanations that don’t really come together when thought about in depth.

    Don’t think of me as a McKenna basher,because I’m not. I just hate how people see him as some sort of modern day psychedelic saint,when in my mind he was just an author with some pretty interesting ideas. I just wish more people would think things out in a skeptical manner without rushing to judgment (for and against-this goes both directions)

    Do psychedelic chemicals provide people with a deeper,more superior experience of “ultimate reality”? I don’t pretend to know the answer to that one,but I will say that there is little doubt in my mind that these substances give access to parts of the mind usually dormant in the consensus social reality. And to me, that’s what really matters…

    Comment by monoamine — 12/4/2005 @ 7:07 pm

  3. I believe the author of this review has a very level headed view of the book, “True Hallucinations”. However I am slightly skeptical of his/her psycadelic history. WIth experience of these substances comes the ability to wrap your head around some pretty fantastic ideas that may not necesarily follow basic logic. Though basic logic makes sense in our precieved reality,beyond that, who is to say what “makes sense” and what doesnt. I for one have dealt with many of the newer, more experimental chemicals such as 2c-e, or 2c-i, and the dreaded 5-MEO-AMT. These incredible trips have allowed considerable expansion in my exceptance of new theories of reality, or alternat realities.

    Comment by Fellow Explorer — 9/8/2006 @ 10:32 am

  4. its good that you keep an open and skeptical mind, but i think its one thing to be healthily cautious and another to be abrasive and out of hand dismissive

    you sound pretty dismissive in this review, a kind of prejudgment.

    Comment by munkdo — 12/12/2010 @ 5:19 pm

  5. Author sounds like he has little to no experience. McKenna shouldn’t be given instant authority over your thoughts but anyone with any knowledge can see what McKenna is describing. Don’t bash things you don’t understand.

    Comment by Trevor — 2/26/2011 @ 12:27 pm

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