A Chronology of Terence McKenna-Related Books, Ideas, People, and Other Things

A chronological list of 30 McKenna-related books, ideas, people, and other things that combine Terence McKenna’s attraction toward history, his focus on memes, and his perspective that “the world is made of language.”

Terence McKenna was fascinated by history, which he theorized to be a finite process—lasting ~10,000 to ~25,000 years—that would end in a phase shift, not unlike the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly, or the birth of a fetus into the world. As he said in “Gathering Momentum for a Leap” (1994):

“The enterprise of understanding is dizzying. It’s an ecstasy in itself. That’s why, to me, what the essence of being psychedelic is is a flirtation with detail and multiplicity. I mean, that’s why I’m so fascinated by history, because it’s such a complex object. I like complex stuff—history, art history, philosophy, languages, magic—all of these things. I like the well-wrought and complex, the pattern turned in on to itself, the place where mind has moved across the sand and left a tracing.”

McKenna also seemed to enjoy viewing ideas, people, words, phrases, books, and other things as—in addition to what each of these things are in and for themselves—memes. In a lecture called “DMT, Mathematical Dimensions, Syntax and Death,” McKenna said:

“One of the things that I feel I’m doing very consciously in these kinds of meetings is: we’re trying to launch and replicate memes. You all know this concept? A meme is the smallest unit of an idea in the same way that a gene is the smallest unit of organism. And, so, these things—DMT elves, transcendental object at the end of history, so forth—these are memes. […] It’s almost like the ideological environment is like a rainforest, or a coral reef. Evolution is taking place.”

Combining McKenna’s attraction toward history, his focus on memes, and his perspective that “the world is made of language,” I created a chronological list of 30 McKenna-related books, ideas, people, and other things that I haven’t yet written about in this column. Due to the depth and variety of McKenna’s intellectual pursuits, this list feels to me more like a personal, idiosyncratic collection of McKenna-related memes than an attempt to represent McKenna’s mind. Any person who engages with McKenna’s oeuvre—his books, lectures, essays—could, I imagine, easily create their own 30-meme list, which would potentially be significantly and, I think, interestingly different than my, or any other person’s, list.

1. Shamanism (at least since ~10,000 BC and possibly hundreds of thousands of years earlier)
McKenna discovered shamanism, or “the archaic techniques of ecstasy,” as he often quoted Mircea Eliade (1907-1987) on the subject, in 1967, as an undergraduate at Berkeley. Eliade, arguably until near the end of his life, viewed the “ingest psychedelic plant” technique as indicating a later, decadent form of shamanism, whereas McKenna had the opposite view—that non-plant techniques like “celibacy, withholding food, ordeals, flagellation, mutilation” indicated corrupted or non-original forms of shamanism. In a lecture from the early 1990s, McKenna observed:

“Shamanism is not some obscure concern of cultural anthropologists: shamanism is how religion was practiced for its first million years. Up until about 12,000 years ago, there was no other form of religion on this planet; that was how people attained some kind of access to the sacred.”

In “Conversations At the Edge of Magic” (1994), McKenna said “Shamanism is about the felt presence of immediate experience in the absence of theory,” and in “Tryptamine Hallucinogens and Consciousness” he observed that the shaman is usually “an intellectual and alienated from society.” He elaborated:

“The shaman is to be found sitting at the headman’s side in the council meetings, but after the council meeting he returns to his hut at the edge of the village. Shamans are peripheral to society’s goings on in ordinary social life in every sense of the word. They are called on in crisis, and the crisis can be someone dying or ill, a psychological difficulty, a marital quarrel, a theft, or weather that must be predicted.”

McKenna related his personal experience with shamans, whom he described as “not really in his culture” in The Archaic Revival (1991), in “In The Valley of Novelty” (1998):

“Part of the thing I found with hanging with shamans in various places and times is that once you get past the language barrier what shamans are are simply curious people, intellectuals of a certain type. In Australian Aboriginal slang, a Shaman is called ‘a clever fellow.'”

2. I Ching (~2800 BC)
“I’ve been fascinated by the I Ching since I was 13 or 14 years old,” said McKenna on public radio—audio of which, titled “I Ching,” can be downloaded here—in the mid/late 1990s, calling it “a method of Chinese divination that’s very, very old.” He wrote in The Archaic Revival:

“The I Ching views time as a finite number of distinct and irreducible elements, in the same way that the chemical elements compose the world of matter. For the Taoist sages of pre-Han China, time was composed of sixty-four irreducible elements.”

Chapter eight of The Invisible Landscape (1975), which McKenna co-wrote with his brother, elucidated the idea of “resonance thinking in Chinese intellectual constructs” with an excerpt from Science and Civilisation in China by Joseph Needham; the excerpt cited a 5th century text in which a Taoist monk answered a question about the fundamental idea of the I Ching by saying that it could be expressed in one word, resonance:

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“We have the money, the power, the medical understanding, the scientific know-how, the love and the community to produce a kind of human paradise. But we are led by the least among us – the least intelligent, the least noble, the least visionary.” ~ Terence McKenna

“Most things in the world are hype. Most things in the world are oversold and under-deliver. But, in my experience, sex, music, and psychedelics deliver. They are actually ‘better than advertised’.” ~ Terence McKenna

“Western civilization is a loaded gun pointed at the head of this planet,” Terence McKenna cautioned.

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Who is Terence McKenna?

Who is Terence McKenna?