Pharmako—or drug—and Gnosis—or knowing. What is a drug and what is knowing? What is a state of mind that could be altered? If these questions seem naive, you may not have put enough time into the laboratory of the spirit, into the proving ground of your own life. But where will you go to begin your inquiry? Where will you go to broaden your mastery, to step outside of your little cubicle, to dip your toes in the ocean of gnosis? One wants a reliable guide, someone who has covered the terrain and given it shape.
Shamanism is not self-help. Shamanism is a wager, a risk, a great danger. So much of what passes for shamanism today is far too domesticated to brave either the wilds of the heart or the deserts of the reductive materialism that frames today’s sciences. But these are precisely the places where a shamanism worth its salt must be tested. What would a true contemporary shamanism even look like? What does it mean to be a doctor of the poison path?
The California-based poet and herbalist Dale Pendell has made the place of plant knowledge his home. In three volumes—Pharmako/Poeia (1994), Pharmako/Dynamis (2002), and now Pharmako/Gnosis (2005)—he has covered the gamut from the stimulants to the sedatives, and with his latest has given us an extensive treatment of the hallucinogens. His books are definitive as well as accessible, useful as both references and as sources of surprise. Each treatment contains keyed sections on history, on preparation and delivery, on chemistry and pharmacology, and on what he calls the “ally.” The ally sections are overtly poetic and metaphorical and they employ what may be the only kind of language that can approach and do justice to the mysterious conjunction of psychoactive and direct human experience. If there is a key to Pendell’s entire masterwork of poisons, it lies in his command of metaphor, in how he leads the reader into the twilight realms where the poisons begin to speak.
Like the alchemical pentagram that forms the frontispiece for the third volume—slightly modified from the first—Pendell’s path represents a mature assessment of the human relation with psychoactives as allegory and as psychogram. All the most powerful plants and potions are given their due, both the poison and the gift are elucidated. Technical terms trip off the tongue, their beauty and their etymology revealed at propitious moments. Pendell has not produced “texts” in any ordinary sense. They are a kind of open poetry that includes prose, every part of it enthused and blessed, fiery with divine madness. This is the sort of work spoken of by one of Pendell’s friends and familiars, the Dionysian scholar Norman O. Brown, who said, “In the holy madness, even books lose their gravity and let themselves go up into the flame.” Or as Ezra Pound opined, “Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.” Pharmako/Gnosis is a ball of light and a corrosive acid, melting apparent surfaces away.
This, the final and long-awaited work of Pendell’s trilogy, focuses on the intersection between the pharmakon and knowledge, what Pendell calls “poison knowledge.” To do the task justice, Pendell must take on the literature of pharmacology and neuroscience, of ethnobotany and anthropology, of mythology and even political economics—not to mention the vaults of Erowid, that damned mob of scribbling trippers. It took chutzpah and quite a bit of struggle to even attempt this work. To take on a poetry of poisons, you’d have to be lucky and crafty, a fool to try and some kind of Odysseus to succeed.
Pendell succeeds because he is a crafty master of the arts where sciences are arts. He playfully wields the state of the art, and he invents new arts even as he revives other, forgotten arts. He engages the scientific, scholarly, and experiential literature, beating and hammering it into finely wrought pieces to be held in the hand and turned. He walks the perilous path, jumping from polemic about the politics of drug use in a controlled society to engagement with the most skeptical of scientific explanations. He emerges from these confrontations with a self-correcting science or path whose method is the most rigorous whimsy. Careful experimentation, skepticism, illusion testing, and exuberant flight of fancy. In other words, poetry and voices.
Great works teach and ennoble as much as they delight. They initiate. What would the work of a Blake or a Lucretius look like if he lived today? I’d wager that he would write something like Pendell. What Blake said of his work is true of Pendell’s: everything is arranged here down to the minute particulars. There are sublime parts and playful parts. At 383 pages with notes and index, the book is meticulously crafted and printed, with evocative reproductions of Remedios Varo and Brueghel sharing space with Huichol design, and botanical drawings. And the style of writing varies to match the subject. Many distinct voices compete, ironizing or dissolving each other, leaving only outlines, or emptiness. “Pendell” himself seems to disappear, leaving his voices to speaking for themselves. At the same time, the author creates such a masterful overarching voice for the entire work, a voice that holds all the others, that one almost believes that there really is such a thing as a poison path.
By beating the drums of greatness, I risk not communicating the lightness with which Pendell leaps across the page, and the twinkling humor that frames his experiments, his proofs, his poetry. This book burns itself up, as Brown said, and like a good bonfire, leaves hardly a trace. It is one step from Ramakrishna’s salt doll who went to measure the depths of the ocean and dissolved in ecstasy, leaving only ocean. Or like Rumi’s horse that falls into the salt mine, the book dissolves and becomes all salt, leaving only an outline. This is art.
Pendell is also the judicious voice, the scholar who weighs different perspectives and evidence. In the Peyote chapter, for example, we learn much about the history of the Peyote cult in North America, and even other responses to the extended upheaval and change in Native American history during the 19th and 20th centuries. Pendell condenses and makes salient large amounts of scholarship; he begins his Peyote history with a description of its almost underground status, outside the organized priesthood of the Aztecs. The evidence seems to point to the fact that this plant was a powerful, provocative agent, anathema to priesthoods of the past and present.
No one familiar with Pendell’s thoroughness will be surprised to find, along with definitive treatments of Peyote and Teonanactl, explorations of more obscure and dangerous gnostic allies. There are extensive chapters on the nightshades, the tropanes, and there is even a chapter on the odd but no less important mescal bean. The notes and references are extensive, and the active researcher will be rewarded with countless trails to explore.
The chapters on LSD are a good example of the work and reveal that, even after Erowid and thousands of books and articles, there is still more to say on this subject. He starts the “Luminosity of Sentient Dimensions” chapter with Albert Hofmann’s first trip report, reading it as if he were a literary critic or a doctor of the poison path:
Hofmann has it all. Poison, pharmakon, medicine. Madness: Mania
theia, divine madness, the source of our great blessings. Death,
Mortificatio: the alchemical death….
Embedded in these remarks are fragments of a history of the path to direct knowledge. This is a laboratory in which aesthetics count as much as molecular weight, melting point, and conclusive evidence. This is the philosopher’s and the poet’s laboratory. But it is still the scientist’s as well, and Pendell directly addresses neuropharmacology when he suggests that LSD represents a pharmacological mystery unrivaled by almost any other psychoactive. Even if you dismiss the ravings of so many acid heads, the pharmacology alone should be fascinating to any mind of scientific bent. Readers of Pendell’s other volumes will remember that poesis, whose root meaning is making, is also a term for chemical synthesis. And here, in the treatment of LSD, synthesis is beautifully juxtaposed with poetic verse, and shown to be yet more poetry—scandalous, brave, and rebellious poetry.
At times, Pendell deftly unleashes a deflating skepticism, what the philosopher Zizek calls the “infinite judgment” of a materialist reductionism. The poet gives the scientific accounts of the brain sciences their due, invoking their attempts to completely model the experience of consciousness and its alterations under the effects of psychoactives. He grants these sciences their power to describe. And then he makes them speak like angels. The way here is not one of avoidance or ignorance or romantic cant, but of the various employment of powers and disciplines, of multiple perspectives.
There is also no felt need to recover something lost. The history here is not soaked in nostalgia, nor is the anthropology. Skepticism is not given up, but sharpened into the sword of a wisdom buddha. Pendell delves deeply into cultural history—our history because it is just as important as pharmacology for understanding both the pharmakon and gnosis. But the history is here to be used and burnt up by the active reader, to find the signature of each ally, to know the pitfalls and dangers as much as the promise of a poison path. Pendell dives into the history and the literature with fury. And the kind of steady fury that burns through this book is what may be necessary in our day. Not some naive and credulous embrace of this or that metaphysical belief, nor a shrinking before the authority of a naive materialism. Whose experience is this? Disillusion is as much a part of the poison path as enchantment. The degree to which we can hold both is the measure of wisdom.
As such, there are correctives here for those of us too much under the sway of the ally, too taken by the archetypes, by the passions, by the daemons. A shift in perspective, a different light is often needed. If the Huichol use of Peyote might be romanticized by the unwary reader, Henry Michaux’s ultra-modern and raw experimentation cannot be. Pendell includes him here expressly criticizing “the banality of the visionary world.” There is medicine here for veteran trippers and gnostics, an injunction to go beyond the visionary world, to return, to come down. To even let go of emptiness. As the poet writes of the LSD ally:
Beyond the forms, beyond all the enchanting and beautiful forms,
and beyond emptiness also, beyond the all equalizing emptiness.
Home, home, to the work of beings.
Return to the camp. Back with your visions, your empty visions.
All the unnecessary visions.
The visionary experience is the threshold and the hallmark of gnosis. But visionary experience alone is not enough. Those who walk the poison path are after something more than beatific visions, something that the American gnostic Emerson called self-reliance or “entirety.” The way of the poison path involves the use of a dialectic in which one principle or power is matched against another in battle or dance—in a gambit for freedom and even mastery. Poison is matched against poison. And everything reveals itself to be both a poison and a gift. Here, many a traditional path’s injunction against intoxication, against insight gained by anything other than one’s own power, is reversed. If the visions and the insights are not the long-sought and rare end result of slow purification and practice, then the chemical inducement of vision and insight and its inevitable banalization can, paradoxically, be salutary. There is little room to gloat, ape holiness, or perform wisdom when DMT has knocked you on your ass. Disillusion with the powers, with the visions and the insights, is a gift of the poisons, because the disillusion throws us back on ourselves. We are brought face to face with Norman O. Brown’s incessant question about Dionysus in our day: “What do human beings really want?”
Pendell steps outside of the folk traditions of the poison path to suggest that the way does not necessarily involve the attempt to bring something back from the visionary realms into some supposedly ordinary life. The ground is constantly shifting. The seeker after visions who took the drug is not the same person who is overwhelmed by visions nor the same one who ends the experience admonished by the gods and the daemons. Neither is their world the same. Neither is their culture. The larger frames in which religious and spiritual practice and all human experience reside begin to come into view. And all the frames are visionary, they are all art.
So why have we, in our day, privileged the accounts of chemistry and other sciences? Why have the descriptions of quantum physics, Pendell asks, become a new theology for us? In reading Strassman on DMT, Pendell wonders why the “the literalist attempts to explain the profundity of visionary experience in materialist terms” always seem to lead to science fiction. Is there another register and another genre in which the science and the art can be brought to together? Responding to our privileging of the chemical, as either scourge or panacea, Pendell quotes Anaïs Nin, who said that, for someone “familiar with Surrealism”—in other words, with visonary poetry and art—the alterations of consciousness by drugs is no novelty. Poetry is itself a path, a gnosis. Active reading—the sort that Pendell demands—is an art equal to any other. If that insight is novel to us, that only mirrors our ignorance.
Our age, Pendell reminds us, is neither a truly scientific age nor an age in which wisdom will come without our own active work. No chemical, no single event, no clock-tick of the cosmic calendar will suffice. True science, in the sense of free and open inquiry, is something that still must be fought for, and fought for with honest indignation and brave audacity. Poison must be matched against poison. And if, as Blake said, the strongest poison ever known comes from Caesar’s laurel crown, from Empire, then the strongest antidote is reason, poetry, and art. We may indeed be blinded by accumulated knowledge and belief, both scientific and metaphysical, and we may be magically bound by social and political institutions and industry. The way out of such second-hand “experience” is the way down and through—through direct engagement, through experiment, through wrestling with and testing the angels. A great, materialist angelology appears, a critical shamanism, a true poetics of science.
- Pharmako/Gnosis, by Erik Davis - 2011 Jan 12 publish
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