Title: True Hallucinations
Author: Terence McKenna
Source: Review by JF
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.