Andy Letcher is a writer of non-fiction, specializing in shamanism, contemporary paganism, psychedelics and other aspects of alternative culture. His first book, Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom
by DoseNation earlier this week. Andy was nice enough to take the time to answer our burning questions about the text via e-mail. Please enjoy.
How did you first get interested in magic mushrooms?
I first heard about magic mushrooms via the rumour mill when I was at school during the early 80s. This would have been shortly after the peak of the first UK magic mushroom craze. I subsequently went to Sheffield University (originally to read Physics and Astronomy, but changing to Pure & Applied Ecology after a year) and joined the student Pagan society: a bunch of scruffy, free-festival-loving green-anarchists. I studied mycology formally as part of my degree but it was through the Pagans that I was initiated into hippy culture and myconautica -- the hills around Sheffield being particularly abundant. My curiosity aroused, I managed to find both Roger Heim's Les Champignons Hallucinogenes
and Gordon Wasson's Persephone's Quest
in the University library. Even then I thought that I would like to write a book on the subject -- it just turned out to take rather longer than expected.
You take the opportunity to slam Wasson's amateur back-door approach to scholarship, essentially saying that what he possessed in academic enthusiasm he lacked in academic rigor. Seeing as how his work is often taken as gospel, and that the bulk of modern popular psychedelic thought has been forwarded on the similar fits and starts of presumptuous outsiders, what do you think that says about our particular field of study?
Well, the very nature of psychedelics is that they challenge our habitual categories of thought and invite colourful speculation! I have no problem at all with what we might call 'folk-philosophy', with people trying to unriddle their experiences in the best way they can, using the best critical tools available to them. That, after all, is what we have always done.
My difficulty with Wasson is that he wanted to be taken seriously as a scholar but refused to play by the accepted rules of scholarship. Had he subjected his ideas to peer review by anthropologists he would have been forced to abandon them at an early stage. Instead he used his charisma, his considerable talents as a rhetorician (not to mention his wealth) to convince people of his primitive mushroom cult thesis (and to berate non-believers as mycophobes). I am not surprised that so many were believed him: an authoritative presence, he was very persuasive.
I think the wider problem is that psychedelics are so marginalised within mainstream Western culture that for nigh on forty years it has been a political no-no for academics even to attempt to address the matter. That, as we know, is beginning to change with the promising developments in Anthropology, Ethnobotany, Neuropharmacology, the Philosophy of Consciousness and the study of Psychedelic Spiritualities within Religious Studies. But in the absence of formal scientific and philosophical investigations we can hardly blame people for wanting to fill the gap themselves.
You take a great deal of time dismantling the modern Wasson/McKenna mushroom mythology piece by piece, essentially undoing the fabric of a modern fairy tale that began when Wasson walked through Maria Sabina's door. You go after Soma, Eleusis, the Druids, all post-Wasson scholars who claim mushroom cults are at the center of all the world's religions, and then go on to junk "Food of the Gods" along with the rest of them. You realize you are slaughtering some pretty sacred cows here. Are you worried at all about backlash from hardcore Wassonians and New Age McKenna fans?
Yes, of course! I've had many a sleepless night worrying whether I'll get lynched at the next psychedelic conference! It's not the easiest of roles being a mythbuster, pointing at the emperor's new clothes. But how Shroom
is received will certainly be a test of whether all that talk about 'radical alterations of consciousness' is just a load of hot air. Will the psychedelic community prove to be just as susceptible to fundamentalism as any other? As I say to unenthusiastic audiences "It's a trip man. Just breathe deeply, go with it, don't fight it, and remember it'll all be over in a few hours!"
Now, though I am a sceptic I hope people will see that I am not a closed sceptic like James Randi or Richard Dawkins. Rather, I am an open sceptic, a 'doubting Thomas'. I would dearly love all that shamanistic stuff to be true, it's just that if I can't shove my fingers in the wound, as it were, then I find it impossible to believe. What I wanted to do with Shroom
was to pare back the more excessive claims made on behalf of magic mushrooms and to ask instead what the evidence
actually allows us to conclude.
One rather hurtful UK review accused me of being 'anti-psychedelic' (which, though I identify myself as a Pagan rather than a Psychonaut, came as something of a surprise to those who know me). In fact I have the best interests of the psychedelic community at heart. Really! I am tired of being forever labelled, marginalised and stigmatised by the mainstream as irresponsible, infantile, escapist, a criminal (you know the litany) for having used mushrooms and found value in the myconautical experience. Irrespective of whether or not such claims are true, to state that magic mushrooms triggered the evolution of language, or that Christianity is actually a degenerate fly-agaric cult, does nothing to change mainstream opinion about psychedelic users. In the present climate such claims place us squarely in the 'nut' category. But if we can present our case based on evidence and carefully reasoned argument, rather than wishful thinking, then the mainstream has no choice but to take us seriously. That, at least, has been my intention -- time will tell to what extent I have succeeded.
You talk at length about the relationship between Gordon Wasson and Maria Sabina -- who is widely considered among mushroom culture to be a saint -- yet only hint at the fact that she had no idea what was in for her once she let Wasson into her ceremony. Since other curanderos had flatly refused Wasson (who he later dismissed as "inferior"), wasn't Sabina equally at fault for her own undoing when she let him in? And if Maria Sabina traded fame and a few dollars for the eventual destruction of her life and livelihood -- not to mention the watering-down of her persona and spirituality into a primitive occult brand -- isn't this a fairly scathing indictment of her own predictive powers?
In the book I argue that Sabina must take some of the blame for what happened and that she does not emerge with a spotless reputation. For example though she denied ever taking money for holding mushroom ceremonies it is quite evident that she did. However her cultural horizons were so narrow in comparison to Wasson's that there is no possible way that she could have known what consequences would follow from her actions. She was not in full possession of the facts. She was the classic victim of the unequal power-relationships that exist within post-colonial encounters. How could she have known about the psychedelic revolution that was just erupting across the Western world? How could she have known that the media-driven West would make her into some kind of celebrity noble-savage? Her days were measured in corn to be ground and bellies to be filled.
Equally one cannot blame her for wanting to extract some money from the wealthy hippies -- millionaires by comparison -- who came knocking on her door: she spent most of her life in abject poverty after all. The trouble is that sudden, unexpected increases in personal wealth are always socially destabilising. Entheo-tourism is now causing exactly the same problems in the Amazon and in Gabon as people go looking for the authentic 'shamanic' experience.
Now, picturing exactly what Sabina thought is very difficult because her words have always been filtered through the distorting lens of Western fantasies and expectations -- unedited transcripts of her interviews are not available in the public domain. I am unaware of Sabina ever claiming to have predictive powers, other than with regard to illness -- determining the cause of an illness and gleaning whether the patient would live or die. Rather, it is we in the West who invest 'shamans' with miraculous powers of prognostication and so on, so, again, it is hardly Sabina's fault that she did not see what was coming.
I noticed you did not mention anything about supposed mushroom cults in South Asia, where it is widely known that cubensis mushrooms grow in the lawns at Angor Wat in Cambodia, and there are at least a few instances ancient statues of the Buddha sitting under tiers of blossoming mushrooms (see one image at tripzine.com) in India. I realize the focus of your book was more a cultural history of mushroom use in the West, but I was wondering if you left out Asia because the scholarship is not as dense, or if it is simply a personal blind spot.
Well, if I'm honest, a bit of both -- I did my best to cover everything, but there you go. Hopefully I might one day get the chance to revise the book for a second edition.
But what I would say is this. Up till now what most writers have done is to assume a priori
that magic mushrooms have been intentionally used when and wherever they grow. Writers then assume that anything resembling a mushroom in ancient art or archaeology is, indeed, a magic mushroom. The argument then becomes circular as other writers take the art as proof of the existence of a mushroom cult, and round and round it goes. We need to move beyond this naive wishful thinking -- it does us no favours.
Firstly, not everything that looks like a mushroom is
a mushroom (see the Hildesheim door example in Shroom
, where the supposed 'mushroom' is actually a fig tree). Secondly not everything that is
a mushroom is a magic
mushroom. And finally the presence of a magic mushroom in art does not indicate the existence of a mushroom cult (could we make that conclusion from a study of today's plethora of mushroomic art?). To posit intentional religious mushroom use on the basis of iconographic homology is to make several unwarranted inductive leaps -- unless there is supporting evidence, of course, but typically there is not.
So in meso-America we have seventy or so psychoactive mushroom species, we have documentary evidence of Aztec cultures intentionally consuming them, hence, it is reasonable to think that the hundreds of pre-conquest mushroom stones might be representations of magic mushrooms (though what their significance and meaning were to the people who made them, we do not know). Where is the supporting evidence in Cambodia? Are they really mushrooms or might they be, say, parasols or some symbolic representation of the sky and hence enlightenment (I'm just guessing here, but you take the point)?
We have to learn to live with multiple hypotheses, multiple interpretations.
Remember, cultures are often (mostly?) wholly ignorant of magic mushrooms -- intentional use is the exception not the norm. When McKenna eventually got to sample the fabled DMT-containing oo-koo-he preparation in Colombia, he found it a huge anti-climax. The locals swore it was the 'real deal' but McKenna found that it never took him to the same highs as mushrooms or pure DMT, and that it exerted a great physical toll upon the body. And all the while the indigenes were totally unaware that, sprouting in their midst, were hundreds and hundreds of cubensis mushrooms…
You mention that as a young man you were stirred by Terence McKenna's rap, and that he "blew your mind" at the Secret Workshop. Many years and two doctorates later you seem somewhat less impressed by his actual legacy. Is "Shroom" in some way a direct response to residual feelings of being indoctrinated into a mushroom cult under false pretenses, or is it simply an academic exercise at attempting to set the historical record straight?
The latter. In many ways my inspiration comes from Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol and self-professed Pagan, who has done a similar mythbusting job on the history of Modern Paganism. I first met him at talk he gave to a Pagan camp in the mid-90s. In the space of 40 minutes he demolished every single one of the foundational myths of my Pagan beliefs! But he did so in such an exciting and liberating manner that I did not want him to stop. I discovered then that the truth can be as intoxicating as any of the myths we concoct for ourselves.
It seems to me that the most fun in this book comes from digging through all the modern historical references to pre-Wassonian mushroom intoxication. You argue that until mescaline and LSD were properly understood in the mid-20th century, there was no cultural framework for understanding the mushroom experience as anything other than "poisoning", which is evidenced by many classic tales of apothecaries attempting to treat people with odd symptoms like "restless giddiness", "soporific phantasmagoria", or -- my personal favorite -- "sardonis rictus", now known by the technical term "perma-grin". While it is obvious from the reports that these poor people were tripping, you find it telling that not one of these accidental trippers ever reported a religious experience, but mainly spoke of panic and discomfort. What does this tell us about the force of cultural expectations in setting the tone of the trip?
I have a formal paper coming out in the journal Anthropology of Consciousness
this fall which explains my thinking on this (and my thinking behind Shroom
) in detail. Briefly, it seems to me that there are three ways of answering the question of what happens to consciousness under the influence of psychedelics. Firstly, there is what I call the 'broken iPod' model. Rather as if some viral software has been introduced into its operating system, psychedelics interfere with the normal operation of the 'iPod of consciousness' in a deleterious way, producing distortions of reality and impairing perception. The impairment might be temporary -- the offending software is removed and normality restored -- or, in the case of psychosis, more permanent. This is the model favoured by the medical establishment: psychedelics have absolutely no value other than, perhaps, giving us a subjective experience of what it is like to be permanently psychotic.
Secondly there is the 'iPod shuffle' model. In shuffle mode the iPod does not play songs randomly but in structured clusters; an apt metaphor for under this model psychedelics rearrange the contents of consciousness, not in the random manner presupposed by the first model, but in unexpected, novel, patterned and meaningful ways. So the subject might gain psychological insights, new ontological perspectives, new understandings, answers to problems etc etc. Here psychedelic experiences have ontological value even though they are constrained by culture.
Finally there is the 'download' model in which psychedelics hook the iPod of consciousness up to some transcendental iTunes in the sky, allowing one to download information or insights that were not previously available. This is the shamanistic model advocated by the psychedelic gurus: Huxley, Leary, McKenna (especially McKenna) and now Pinchbeck. Under this model we can talk about 'the psychedelic experience' in the abstract. It is a thing that exists outside of language and culture.
Now, once again I would dearly love the third model to be true but I can't help thinking that however much it feels as if one is encountering the transcendental other, our psychedelic experiences are actually always culturally bound. Wittgenstein was right when he said "that whereof we cannot speak we must remain silent." The cross-cultural evidence certainly seems to be pushing us in this direction. Why else was it that Sabina only had visions of saint-children and sacred books and never of space colonies and fractal timewaves and strange-attractors at the end of time? Could it be that the reason why my own myconautical experiences have so often been orientated around the question of evolution is because for several years I was an evolutionary biologist?
This is heresy, I know, and runs counter to the entire direction of twentieth century psychedelic thought. In my paper I argue that there is no way of empirically testing which of the three models is correct -- which one we plump for is a discursive move -- but somewhat reluctantly I think the 'shuffle' model affords us the 'safest' baseline position from which to begin our investigations (I am waiting, of course, for the hives of machine elves to set me right).
Let's just assume, for a moment, that this really is the case. What are the implications of the shuffle model being correct? Well as Thomas de Quincey spotted over a hundred years ago if you give drugs to a haywain he will have visions of oxen; but give drugs to an artist, a poet or a philosopher…Now I am not suggesting, as Huxley did, that psychedelic use should be restricted to the intelligensia. Rather I am suggesting that if all psychedelics do is rearrange the contents of consciousness in surprising ways then to get the most out of psychedelics we need to give them something interesting to work on! So it behoves us to read philosophy, to hone our skills as musicians and artists, to educate ourselves, to read great works of literature, to wrestle with the big questions. To that end I wonder whether we don't need a new term for psychedelics? I admit the marketplace is already somewhat crowded but I am toying with 'alethotropics' or 'alethotropes': substances, or tools, that help us move towards understanding or truth. Built into this term is the assumption that these substances are culturally bound and can only ever take us part of the way.
You mention Tim Leary, Terence McKenna, and Daniel Pinchbeck in the line of "pretenders to the throne" of modern psychedelic culture; posers who use the trappings of academia to create science fiction theories that enthrall the public. Your only defense of them is that people are quick to embrace visionaries as long as they are good storytellers, but should we excuse poor scholarship just because they can tell a good tall tale? Why do we so eagerly let these crazy people tell us what to believe?
Well, I wouldn't use the word 'poser' myself (except, perhaps in connection with Leary). Perhaps I am just unable to discard a teenage idol, but in spite of it all I still maintain a healthy respect for McKenna -- I take pleasure from his oratory, delight in his idiosyncratic turns of phrase, and enjoy his enquiring mind. When I call him a storyteller I mean that as a great compliment. I'm not trying to rid us of stories as I believe we are intrinsically storytelling beings. Rather, I think we need better ones in which neither the imagination nor the intellect are allowed to get the upper hand: we need to dream and we need to pare back our dreams with reason. And the story I'm peddling is that we really are the Mushroom People, that this really is the Mushroom Age. As stories go I think that's fairly amazing.
Although you make no flat statements one way or the other in the text, it seems that you have dismissed the "entheogenic" properties of mushrooms entirely as a culturally imposed stereotype, and have decided that there is nothing inherently spiritual about mushroom intoxication itself. Is this a fair assessment of your personal view, or do you still hold on to some fairy tale notions yourself?
Well, I've spent most of my adult life pinballing between the twin poles of belief and disbelief, but here I take great inspiration from the American psychologist of Religion, philosophical pragmatist and professional doubter, William James. A Protestant, James realised that it was not possible to reason
the answer to the question of God's existence. In the end it came down to faith and personal inclination. Even though he felt sure that religious experiences mostly had their origins in the subconscious mind he left open the possibility that they might genuinely have transcendental origins. And, at the end of his enquiry he found that in spite of all, he did have faith.
I am cut from a similar cloth. If my myconautical travels have taught me anything it is a sense of humility: that we are just monkeys who got lucky; that, in spite of our technological achievements and scientific pronouncements we are very far from knowing all. So yes, in spite of my sceptical position I find that I do have faith, that I still hold out that there is something more
to the psychedelic experience than just
culture and psychology.
As it is I consider myself privileged -- supremely lucky, in fact -- to have seen the world through mushroom-widened eyes. They have provided me with some of the most pivotal (not to mention jaw-droppingly beautiful, inspiring and terrifying) experiences of my life. Mushrooms may not present us with all the answers, but they throw up so many interesting questions, riddles and conundrums that we will be gainfully employed for many generations to come in trying to sift out the gold from the fairy dust. Pursuits don't come much nobler than that.