Daring to be Eccentric
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.
There’s definitely a kernel of truth in here, about the power of imagination to transform us individually and as a society. In my own spiritual path, as certain beliefs or traditions lost their power or proved inadequate, I’ve done exactly what McKenna describes—unconsciously. Each authentic path I’ve taken is the result of going back and uncovering what felt real and true. Surprisingly perhaps, it’s always led me to unexpected places.
The idea of the salmon swimming upstream resonates here doesn’t it? Returning to the source – going back to the primal sources of nourishment…
Checked out the link – thanks for that – will have to do some further pondering. In the wider lecture he talks about opening to ‘the real ambiguity of being’. This stood out for me. It seems to me that in holding within ourselves seemingly contradictory concepts- without judging either as less or more – we create a space where a new perception can be born. Our culture is so fixed on either/or, distrusts any kind of ambiguity. What attracted me so much to Neo-Paganism was its desire to see the world beyond a restictive dualism. In embracing ambiguity we give ourselves the chance to discover new ways to perceive ourselves and life. Imagination is key to this re-envisioning; it’s the place where the old, rigid and ‘exhausted’ ideas dissolve – and with such boundaries gone – our spirit has the opportunity to spread out and occupy a wider and deeper understanding.
I keep thinking of dragonfly larvae; how their juvenile bodies are forced up from the river bottom, the changes in them preventing them from breathing beneath water anymore, despite the fact that they have done this for their entire lives so far. Compelled into the world above water – which might as well be another universe, it is so different from their old life – they literally split open, their new bodies forcing their way out, a body so extraordinarily different that one might question it was the same creature. Perhaps we humans have reached this stage and are now compelled on our own extraordinary transformation. I hope so. Alchemy seems to hold some fascinating keys in helping us to understand this journey. Perhaps we are not so much going back but opening out, widening, becoming more our true selves?
This lecture reminded me of The Museum of Lost Wonder which you introduced us to earlier in the year!
I loved Mr McKenna’s poetic thoughts about mercury – however it did make me feel that we are both the mercury and the alchemist – the mercury because we hold the mysteries within us -(to be recalled and re-learnt) and we also like mercury, reflect the world and yet we also have to be the alchemist – to work it all out and fuse together the masculine and femine… very interesting lecture – definately going to read the others. Maria’s points were very fascinating too – demonstrating the ‘tough love’ of nature…. perhaps the cosmos is employing that technique with us…
I have been following your blog since its beginning. I was wondering if you had the sense of still being aligned to your original intention to “undress” yourself online…???
I´m Jacqueline (Brocéliande) and am finishing my Druid Grade. So – thank you (for the Gwersu) and a big hug.
Eccentric – out of center; not occupying the center? Not centered? To be observer and observed one at the same time? Loved One and Lover in an intangible dual union or united duality?