Breaking Open the Head, by Daniel Pinchbeck, is the most cited, and probably the best, book on psychedelic experiences since the works of the late Terence McKenna. I read it with great eagerness, and found it delightful in parts, irritating in others, and finally vastly disappointing…
There’s something about psychedelic drugs–and this is precisely what is so wondrous about them–that defeats attempts to put them into narratives and words. At least, I have never read anything that was adequate to my own experiences with these substances. (I no longer take LSD and psilocybin for several good reasons–but I value highly what I got from these drugs, aesthetic experiences and ontological lessons that I will never forget). I keep on trying to find textual expressions of psychedelic experience, and I keep on being disappointed with what I find. Probably this is inevitable; words and images, in this case, can never be the equivalents of the experiences they endeavor to represent.
What’s great about Pinchbeck’s book is the way he evokes his psychedelic experiences, and weaves them into a narrative, not just of his own quest for meaning, but to the cultural history off the West in the twentieth century more generally. This is a smart and widely knowledgeable book; Pinchbeck is able to move from Amazon shamans to Walter Benjamin to Alesteir Crowley, without losing a beat.
But what I found so irritating and disappointing about Breaking Open the Head is precisely the flip side of these virtues; and it is something that seems endemic in psychedelic culture today. It’s what can best be called the seductive allure of the Sublime: the will to give a meaning to phenomena that exceed all our potentialities for meaning. At the start of the book, Pinchbeck portrays himself as somebody who is desperately looking for something meaningful to replace what he describes as the futile nihilism of his downtown New York life. And unfortnuately, he all too fully finds this meaning; if you look for transcendence, you are all too likely to find it. So Pinchbeck proclaims a knowledge born of psychedelic drugs: that “the nature of reality is spiritual, not physical,” and that human life and history have a hidden goal.
Nietzsche said that man would rather will nothingness, than not will. He adds that man would rather ascribe a meaning to suffering, any meaning, no matter how ridiculous or horrible, than accept that his suffering is gratuitous and meaningless. This is precisely Pinchbeck’s problem.
To my way of thinking, the fact that a small molecule like LSD can affect my thinking so profoundly and overwhelmingly, is precisely proof that thought is material to the core: that everything happens in this finite, mortal body. And the fact that the experience offered us by psychedelic drugs (in contrast to alcohol or marijuana or cocaine) is so ego-shattering, so fundamentally one of Otherness, one that cannot easily be contained within the bound of self-expression and self-projection, again–for me–testifies against the “omnipotence of thought” that Freud saw at the heart of narcissism and religious belief alike. If there is any experience that repels our efforts to reclaim it, to fit it into our conceptual schemes, to possess it, then it is the experience of psychedelic drugs.
But what Pinchbeck does–as Leary and McKenna did before him–is precisely to turn this boundless Otherness, this absolute resistance to categories and meanings, into a higher, transcendent Meaning in its own right. And so we get the familiar litany of occultism, ranging from the Tarot to Gurdjieff, from Hindu notions of karma to ley lines, from ancient shamanic rites of purification to Disney cartoon elves. And we get impossibly idealized descriptions of the wisdom of “primitive” societies, which Pinchbeck writes about as if they were entirely devoid of history or politics, until their “purity” was compromised by Western colonial and economic exploitation.
All that I am saying here could be charged against Terence McKenna as well, of course; but though Pinchbeck is remarkably sober, in a certain way, in his choice of which delusions he will accept, and which reject, he doesn’t have anything like McKenna’s passion, or charm, or humor. Indeed, Pinchbeck comes across as a rather dry and somber fellow–at least this is the persona he constructs for himself in the course of the book. Perhaps this is meant to make his accession to spirituality, against his own will and better judgment, seem all the more plausible; but I just found it to be another depressing instance of the way that–even with things as mind-opening as psychedelic drugs–we tend to read into our experiences whatever we were already (if unconsciously) looking for in them.
I admit it, I’m a hard-core materialist and cynic; I have never had, with psychedelics or without, anything like the conversion experience that Pinchbeck records in these pages, and that seems to be a precondition for believing what he believes. Or better: I have “had the experience, but missed the meaning,” as T S Eliot once disparagingly wrote. But I am proud of that; to my way of thinking, to have the experience, but to refuse the meaning has the force of an ethical principle. It’s the only true experimental attitude; the only way to remain open to what life has to offer. Among other things, that is what LSD taught me, as well as the way I approached the experience of LSD.