Two books to help get your head around the psychedelic
Michael Pollan is no stereotype, while Tao Lin brings a more personal take
A group of tired partygoers at the Merry Pranksters’ Acid Test Graduation, most of whom are probably high on LSD-25. Photograph: Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
How To Change Your Mind: Exploring the New Science of Psychedelics
by Michael Pollan
437 pp, £20 STG
Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change
by Tao Lin
320 pp, $16 USD
In the middle decades of the 20th century, psychedelic drugs were the growth area in psychiatric research. Not only did LSD and psilocybin (the active molecule in “magic mushrooms”) promise treatments for depression and addiction, they were a powerful new means of understanding consciousness. Midway through the 1960s, after rogue Harvard professor Timothy Leary launched a crusade to flood America with LSD, the authorities got spooked. All official research into psychedelics was shut down as part of a “war on drugs”, and the cultural optimism around psychedelics as “consciousness expanding” substances gave way to moral panic. Psychedelics were driven underground.
Now, however, a psychedelic renaissance is under way. What was countercultural is being embraced by a maturing scientific mainstream. In what may prove to be a book of great importance, Michael Pollan, one of Time magazine’s hundred most influential people in the world, and the author of foodie bestsellers including The Omnivore’s Dilemma, investigates this reawakening to the marvels of psychedelics.
Pollan is decidedly not anyone’s stereotype of a psychedelic evangelist. A successful, sexagenarian baby boomer with materialist philosophical leanings, he only recently took an interest in psychedelics, having internalised the propaganda against them in his youth. In How To Change Your Mind, Pollan suggests that psychedelics may be wasted on the young, and have more to offer those in the second half of life who, as Carl Jung believed, are in greater need of an “experience of the numinous”.
The two molecules to which Pollan devotes most attention – LSD and psilocybin – have only been known to the West for a matter of decades. LSD was synthesised by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman in 1938. Hoffman became a lifelong advocate of the hallucinogenic molecule that engenders astonishment, insight, and unimaginable beauty. Like many others, he believed that in a spiritually barren modernity, LSD grants access to the sacred.
Psilocybin made itself known to Western science via a 1957 article in Life magazine by Robert Gordon Wasson, who travelled to Mexico to ingest magic mushrooms with tribespeople who use them as a sacrament. A mycological underground has long thrived even in cultures which do not use psychedelics for public religious purposes. Every autumn foragers in Ireland pick magic mushrooms, though possession of them has been illegal here since 2006.
As part of his research, Pollan undergoes psychedelic experiences with the aid of underground guides. His trip reports are rich and candid. Investigating both the first and second waves of psychedelic research, he learns that strong doses reliably occasion ego-dissolving, mystical experiences. Many people regard psychedelic trips as among the most meaningful experiences of their lives. As psychedelics re-enter the psychiatric mainstream, research centres such as Johns Hopkins have successfully used them to help people with terminal illnesses come to terms with their approaching deaths. Elsewhere, smokers quit smoking, alcoholics quit drinking, depressives begin to smile.
Perhaps the most tantalising claim made for psychedelics is that they are not only “mind-manifesting” (as the word’s etymology indicates), but facilitate access to a “beyond”, a transcendental reality that exists independently of the brain. Pollan approaches this issue in an admirably undogmatic manner, examining the heterodox idea that consciousness is not a phenomenon generated by brains, but a property of the universe itself, with brains serving as its receivers. If this is the case, psychedelics may be a “technology of consciousness” that enables access to dimensions alien to materialist orthodoxy. Indeed, Pollan encounters numerous scientists whose research into psychedelics has led them to perspectives that feel “uncomfortably unscientific” – for instance, the possibility that death is not the end, but “could be a beginning”.
Illuminating even to seasoned readers of psychedelic literature, How To Change Your Mind argues that we have much to gain, on both a personal and societal level, if we open ourselves to the impossible splendour of psychedelics. It deserves to be read not only by the already-psychedelic and the psy-curious, but by the sceptical – including legislators and mental-health professionals – whose minds it may indeed change.
A more personal book, Tao Lin’s Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change recounts the author’s engagement with the work of the brilliant, outrageously speculative advocate of plant psychedelics, Terrence McKenna.
An expansion of Lin’s Vice column, “The Tao of Terrence”, Trip bears similarities to Daniel Pinchbeck’s postmodern psychedelic-conversion narrative, Breaking Open the Head. Whereas Lin’s prior novel, Taipei, was a bleak and dissociative work, Trip indicates that psychedelics have opened vital currents for him as a writer and as a man.
His first work of non-fiction combines memoir with research on psychedelics, and reflections on the philosophical and political questions they provoke. Lin’s sometimes grating mannerisms of style have (mostly) been set aside, and he writes engagingly about growing up ill-nourished and spiritually starved in “degenerate” America. His trademark Web-addled blankness is eschewed in favour of a heartfelt engagement with the wisdom of ancient civilisations and their entheogenic “teacher plants”. Psilocybin, DMT, salvia, and cannabis are each sampled and investigated.
The challenge of writing about psychedelics is to render experiences that are private and ineffable interesting to the reader. Terrence McKenna’s genius was that he never put a foot wrong in this regard - check out his mesmerising talks on YouTube - whereas Lin is not always so successful. Some sections read like interminable Erowid trip reports, with Lin indulging druggy stereotypes that will confirm the prejudices of those who regard psychedelics as ‘hazardous and uninteresting’ (as Tao did before he encountered Terrence). It is not particularly edifying, for instance, to read about a blitzed Lin talking to his bong.
The narrative of personal rebirth and the sloughing off of a vapid worldview, however, redeems Trip from stoner self-indulgence. In a novelistic epilogue written in the third-person, Lin heads to California for a plant-drawing workshop with McKenna’s one-time wife, Kathleen Harrison. En route, he decides that his book will “trend towards the feminine”. Earlier reflections contrast masculine, “dominator” cultures with the ancient religions of the Goddess that they supplanted. In short, the stakes are considerably higher than they were in Lin’s novella Shoplifting From American Apparel. For all the communing with bongs and speculations about its author’s extraterrestrial origins, Trip is a sane book about becoming sane, and Lin’s most valuable work to date.
The surge of interest in psychedelics to which these two books attest is a cause for optimism. Half a century after they first shook Western civilisation, the unfathomable molecules continue to tremble with awesome promise.
Rob Doyle’s most recent book is “This Is the Ritual”