That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time
John Stuart Mill
I had always avoided looking at the work of Terence McKenna, ever since I saw a videocast of him talking where he looked so stoned and was so enthusiastically promoting psychedelics in what I felt was an irresponsible way, I decided he was just too off the wall for me. But in the back of my mind I sensed he was an extraordinarily gifted man, and that one day his work would repay study.
Rather like the books mentioned by Cannetti in yesterday’s post, some people’s work can be ‘kept on hold’ for years before turning to it – at just the right time. And for me, this moment came when I began researching alchemy for the book I’m working on. Lo and behold McKenna appears in Esalen twenty years ago (I think – it’s not clear) talking in an extraordinarily prescient way about the times we find ourselves in, and about the value of turning to ancient traditions. Try the following quote for size and if you like it, have a look at the full transcript of the talk he gave here (It’s Lecture 1 – and there are more).
The imagination is central to the alchemical opus because it is literally a process that goes on the realm of the imagination taken to be a physical dimension. And I think that we cannot understand the history that lies ahead of us unless we think in terms of a journey into the imagination. We have exhausted the world of three dimensional space. We are polluting it. We are overpopulating it. We are using it up. Somehow the redemption of the human enterprise lies in the dimension of the imagination. And to do that we have to transcend the categories that we inherit from a thousand years of science and Christianity and rationalism and we have to re-empower and re-encounter the mind and we can do this psychedelically, we can do this yogically, or we can do it alchemically and hermetically.
Now there is present in the world at the moment, or at least I like to think so, an impulse which I have named the archaic revival. What happens is that whenever a society really gets in trouble, and you can use this in your own life – when you really get in trouble – what you should do is say “what did I believe in the last sane moments that I experienced?” and then go back to that moment and act from it even if you no longer believe it. Now in the Renaissance this happened. The scholastic universe dissolved. New classes, new forms of wealth, new systems of navigation, new scientific tools, made it impossible to maintain the fiction of the Medieval cosmology and there was a sense that the world was dissolving. Good alchemical word – dissolving. And in that moment the movers and shakers of that civilization reached backwards in time to the last sane moment they had ever known and they discovered that it was Classical Greece and they invented classicism. In the 15th and 16th century the texts which had lain in monasteries in Syria and Asia Minor forgotten and untranslated for centuries were brought to the Florentine council and translated and classicism was born – its laws, its philosophy, its aesthetics. We are the inheritors of that tradition but it is now, once again, exhausted and our cultural crisis is much greater. It is global. It is total. It involves every man, woman and child on this planet, every bug, bird and tree is caught up in the cultural crisis that we have engendered. Our ideas are exhausted – the ideas that we inherit out of Christianity and its half-brother science, or its bastard child science. So, what I’m suggesting is that an archaic revival needs to take place and it seems to be well in hand in the revival of Goddess worship and shamanism and partnership but notice that these things are old – 10,000 years or more old – but there was an unbroken thread that, however thinly drawn, persists right up to the present.
Note: I’m not sure what he means by a revival of ‘partnership’ – it could be a transcription error.