Terence McKenna Vs. the Black Hole
Excerpts from the CD, Terence McKenna: the Last Interview.
The following are excerpts from interviews that I conducted with Terence McKenna in late October and early November of 1999, in preparation for a profile that appeared in the May 2000 issue of Wired. These interviews have also been edited and released on a CD, Terence McKenna: The Last Interview. Given McKenna’s subsequent demise, I chose selections concerning his feelings about death and dying. The October interview was conducted in San Francisco just a few days before Terence underwent a craniotomy, and he therefore spoke a bit more frankly about his condition than during November, when I spent a week with him and his wonderful girlfriend Christie Silness during his sort-of recovery in Hawaii.
The comments have been edited and are not chronological; I have included my questions only when necessary. Perhaps someday the full text of our talks will be made available. In Hawaii, we had an especially entertaining routine: during the day, I would ask him the professional interviewer questions, and in the evening, after he had napped, we would get thoroughly baked and ramble through the wilds of esoterica and bibliomania. The evening chats were recorded on DAT; they need serious editing, but there’s some mind-bending loops in there.
I first met Terence in the early 90s, and I feel blessed to have been able to spend some time getting to know him a little better during the last six months of his life. I found him kind, generous, and unpretentious, although he clearly had a potent dark side. He was even more brilliant and well-read than I had expected, with fistfuls of references at his command. But most remarkable for me was how he seemed to face his situation: with an admirable blend of humor, compassion, stoicism, and a willingness to stay open and awake in the midst of the big awful questions without trying to console yourself with answers. And that, for my money, is the ultimate lesson of the psychedelic path — not the Gaian mind, or the onrushing apocalypse, or those ridiculous elves, but a radical openness to ambiguity and the unknown.
At one point I asked him what advice he had for someone about to down 100 ml of potent ayahuasca alone in a rainforest. His words were spare, the utter opposite of the guru some made him out to be: “Pay attention. And keep breathing.” Words to live by, until you stop.
MCKENNA: These cancer doctors give you very little hope. They tell you, Nobody escapes, it will return, you have 6 to 9 months to live, go home and make your will, you can eat anything you want do anything you want because, fella, there’s nothing we can do for you.
Davis: How did you initially react?
McKenna: With disbelief. I still find it very hard to emotionally connect with it. When I was taking high doses of steroids we had what I called the “tears and philosophy hour” ever morning, where it all came into focus and the tragedy of my passing was starkly confronted. [LAUGHS] But over the weeks, hell, we’re used to it by now.
The paradox is that you don’t feel bad, or at least I don’t. So its like being an actor in a play. Pretend you have a lethal disease.
Davis: Tell me what that play is like.
McKenna: There are various options. One is cure-chasing, where you head off to Shanghai or Brazil or the Dominican Republic to be with these great maestros who can save you. The other thing is, do what you always wanted to do. So that means, head to Cape Canaveral to see a shuttle launch, on to sunrise over the pyramids, on to a month in the Grand Hotel de Paris, on to Jerusalem. I wasn’t too keen on that either. My tendency was just to twist another bomber and think about it all.
Davis: What did you think about?
McKenna: I was interested in how I got into this mess. Was it my lifelong enthusiasm for recreational drugs? Was it my messing around with rocket fuel as a kid, or chemicals associated with collecting plants and insects? Was it sitting in front of my computer and firing it up morning after morning? How do you get into a mess like this? There’s only about 16 of these glioblastoma multiformes a year, so its a rare disease. I never won anything before, so why now?
Davis: What about the fact that it’s a brain tumor?
McKenna: The irony of it for me is incredible. I always made my living as a brain guy, thinking. That was my department. Perturbing the brain physically, with drugs, ideas, and so forth. And I offered these doctors the chance to scold me. So what about it? A lifetime of recreational experimental drug taking, you wanna hammer on me about that? They said, Oh no, absolutely not. Well how about a lifetime of daily cannabis smoking? Oh no, look, we have data here, cannabis may actually retract tumors. I said, Listen, if cannabis retracts tumors, we would not be having this conversation. I am a study of one that can be considered definitive.
I always thought death would come on the freeway in a few horrifying moments, so you’d have no time to sort it out. Having months and months to look at it and think about it and talk to people and hear what they have to say, its a kind of blessing. Its certainly an opportunity to grow up and get a grip and sort it all out. Just being told by an unsmiling guy in a white coat that your going to be dead in four months definitely turns on the lights.
It makes life rich and poignant. When it first happened, and I got these diagnoses, I could see the light of eternity, a la William Blake, shining through every leaf. I mean, a bug walking across the ground moved me to tears.
Nothing lasts. That’s one thing I think you learn from life, psychedelics, or just paying attention. Very little lasts.
These Buddhists aren’t kidding: you are here for a very brief moment, and you can sit on your thumb and do whatever you want, but in fact the clock is ticking. What are you gonna do about it? Are you gonna blow it off, or be a hedonist? What are you gonna do with that? If most people took it seriously, a hell of a lot more would be done with more attention to quality and intent. And they’re always talking about this stuff — intent.
I have to say I do feel lucky, even at this late stage of the game, I feel lucky to have lived the life I lived, and even though I have this horrific thing I feel lucky in terms of dealing with it. I don’t feel like its a death sentence.
McKenna: Until I’m able to run upstairs I think I just have to yield to fate. Its not clear entirely what’s happening with me. If I’m getting well, that’s pretty easily managed. If I’m in fact slowly slipping away, you just want to do it right and set a good example and not be a pain to your relatives, friends, and fans. And that seems pretty easy to me. It all gets very private once they tell you’re about to kick.
Davis: “It” being?…
McKenna: Life, or the management of your persona and reputation. So it’s all about getting through life without disgracing oneself in some fundamental way.
Davis: Do you think your illness might be turned into a spectacle?
McKenna: Not unless I would cooperate. Leary must have originated all those plans of dying on the net. At this conference [AllChemical Arts, September, 1999], somebody kept coming up to me and saying, Are you read for the cryogenic discussion yet? And I said, No, I don’t think were going to be doing that. I don’t seek to live forever. I don’t want the removal of my head to become a Net event. I think part of what death is about biologically is reshuffling the gene-pool. If genes were to last forever, death would never have entered the scheme of things.
Davis: Does it bother you that you probably wont be around for 2012?
McKenna: I’d always assumed I’d live to see 2012. It doesn’t bother me very much. Very few prophets live to see their prophecies — Joachim de Fiore didn’t, Marx didn’t. If its gonna happen, its gonna happen, it doesn’t need cheerleading. Its built into the morphology of space and time.
That’s all a very funny thing about me and my career that’s different from Leary, different from all of these people: this strange relationship to prophecy and the eschaton. My fans don’t understand any of that stuff, and my critics don’t understand much of it either. So we all just have to put up with it until it clears itself out of the way.
I find to my surprise about myself, that I’m not really afraid of death. I’m pretty concerned about dying. I don’t want dying to turn into some kind of wet, sticky, thrashing kind of thing. Death, hell, what are you buying? You have no idea, so why even give it a moments’ thought?
Death is the black hole of biology. It’s an event horizon, and once you go over that event horizon, no information can be passed back out of the hole. So people can stand around the edge of the hole and say, Well it was this or that, but in fact, it represents some kind of limit case in the thermodynamics of information. You just can’t hand messages back over that threshold. So get yourself pointed right, do not your mantras bungle, and that’s about it. When you’re actually dead, all bets are off. The best answer I’ve gotten yet out of this is from Don Delillo’s Underworld, where the nun discovers that when you die you become your website.
Davis: Your website is pretty cool.
McKenna: It needs work, especially if its gonna be me for eternity. It definitely needs work.
Davis: What do psychedelics say about all this?
McKenna: I don’t know what psychedelics say about death. I think they say a great deal about dying. I think they model dying. In a way, shamanism is proto-Buddhism. Taking plants and spending your life in esoteric philosophy and taking drugs is basically on a meditation on death. Buddhism is some form of learning how to die. And that seems worth doing. And unavoidable. If you’re a serious person, how could you not confront this kind of stuff?
Davis: How have you changed emotionally?
McKenna: I’m much more resonant and in tune with the Buddhist demand for compassion. The world needs to be a more compassionate place. It is not moving toward that as I see it. More and more people are exploited by fewer and fewer people, more and more effectively. And the tools of exploitation, which are advertising and propaganda and all of that, grow ever more powerful and irresistible.
This is really the challenge for the future. We can build a civilization like nothing the world has ever seen. But can it be a human, a *human* civilization? Can it actually honor human values? It’s one thing, the rate of invention or gross national product or production of industrial capacity — all of these things are all very well. But the real dilemma for human beings is how to build a compassionate human civilization. The means to do it come into our ken at the same rate as all these tools which betray it. And if we betray our humanness in the pursuit of civilization, then the dialogue has become mad.
So it is a kind of individual challenge for every single person to demand that compassionate civilization. It calls for a uniquely human response from each person. And the way to be motivated to do that is to take on the fact of human mortality, your own and other peoples’.
When I think about dying, the thing that surprises me is how much of the future I regard as history, and how I don’t want to miss it. I want to know how it all comes out. I haven’t a lot of money riding on my vision of things, but I would like to know how the universe came to be, what’s up with extraterrestrials, where biotech is going, where the Internet is going, about robot/man space-flight to the outer planets. Because the next century will be it. We are on the brink of a posthuman existence, or we are into the early phase of the posthuman existence. So what’s it gonna look like? What’s it gonna feel like?
Hipparchus, in the second century BC, was asked what he feared most about death, and he said, Not being able to follow the latest discoveries in astronomy.
Well, that’s precisely my position.