Terence McKenna
Opening the Doors of Creativity

From a talk in Port Heuneme, CA, sponsored by Carnegie Museum of Art, early 1990ís. Transcribed from Palenque Norte podcast 123 (7:18 - 58:03) by Metrophuman.

Podcast available for free download at: http://www.matrixmasters.net/salon/?p=152

Well, the theme that unites these lectures is creativity and the techniques by
which the artist can refine his or her vision, expand the vision, communicate the
vision. And before I get into that issue, I thought I would talk just a little bit
about my notion of creativity per se. What is it, in and of itself?

And when I think like that of course I cast my mind back to nature. Nature is the
great visible engine of creativity, against which all other creative efforts are
measured. And creativity in nature has a curious distribution. It’s something
which accumulates through time. If we stand back and look at the universe, we
see that at its earliest moments, it was very simple. It was a plenum. It was
without characters or characteristics. It was what is called in Hindu mythology
the Toriah, which is described as attribute-less. And naturally if something is
without attribution, you can’t say much about it. It takes a while for it to undergo
a declension into more creative realms. And these creative realms are
distinguished as domains of difference. The precondition for creativity is, I think,
disequilibrium. What mathematicians now call chaos. And through the light of
the universe, as temperatures have fallen, more and more complex compound
structures have arisen. And though there’s been many a slipping back in this
process, over very large spans of time we can say that creativity is conserved.
That the universe becomes more creative. And out of that state of creative
fecundity, more creativity is manifest. So from that point of view, the universe is
almost what we would have to call an art-making machine. An engine for the
production of ever-more novel forms of connectedness… ever-more exotic
juxtapositions of disparate elements. And out of this, I believe, arises implicitly, a
set of principles we can then apply to the human artist in the human world.

Nature’s creativity is obviously the wellspring of human creativity. We emerge
out of nature almost—and this idea I think was fairly present close to the surface
of the medieval mind—we emerge out of nature almost as its finest work of art.
The medieval mind spoke of the productions of nature. This is a phrase you hear
as late as the 18th century. The productions of nature. And human creativity
emerges out of that, whether you have a model of the Aristotelian great ladder of
being, or a more modern evolutionary view where we actually consolidate
emergent properties and somehow bring them to a focus of self-reflection.

Now, I’m sure that we couldn’t carry out a discussion of this sort without
observing that the prototypic figure for the artist, as well as for the scientist, is the
shaman. The shaman is the figure at the beginning of human history that unites
the doctor, the scientist and the artist into a single notion of care-giving and
creativity. And I think that, you know, to whatever degree art, over the past
several centuries, has wandered in the desert, it is because this shamanic function
has been either suppressed or forgotten. And we’ve… different images of the
artist have been held up at different times: the artist as artisan; the artist as
handmaiden of a ruling class or family; the artist as designer for the production
of integrated objects into a civilization. This notion of the artist as mystical
journeyer, as one who goes into a world unseen by others, and then returns to tell
them of it, was pretty much lost in the post-medieval and renaissance conception
of art. Up until the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, where,
beginning with the Romantics, there is a new permission to explore the irrational.

This really is the bridge back to the archaic, shamanic function of the artist.
Permission to explore the irrational. The Romantics did it with their elevation of
titanic emotion, of romantic love specifically. The symbolists, in the mid-19th
century, did it by a reemphasis on the emotional content of the image and a
rejection of the previous rationalism, and that emphasis on the image and on the
emotions set the stage, then, for what I take to be the truly shamanic movements
in art, which begin really with Alfred Jarry, in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s.
Jarry you may remember was the founder of something called the Ecole du
Pataphysique1—the Pataphysical College. Jarry announced pataphysics is the
science. Problem was, no one could understand what it meant or what it stood
for, including Jarry. Jarry was tight with Montremont, who you may recall said: I
am fascinated by that kind of beauty that arises when a sewing machine meets a
bicycle on an operating table. See, this was a true effort to bend the boundaries of
art, to create new permission… permission really for the unthinkable. And this
again reinforces the shamanic function.

1 And writer of the play Ubu-Roi

What do we mean when we say the unthinkable? We mean the envelope of that
which can be conceived. And for at least 200 years, the ostensible mission of the
artist has been to test the conceptual and imagistic envelope of what the society is
willing to tolerate. This has taken many forms: the deconstruction of imagery
that we get with abstract impressionism going back into impressionism and the
pointillists. Or the permission for the irrational imagery of the unconscious;
surrealism and German expressionism make use of this permission. Always the
idea being to somehow destroy the idols of the tribe, dissolve the conceptual
boundaries of ordinary expectation.


Well, in order to do this, it seems to me there is a precondition for the creation of
art which I call understanding. And I don’t mean this in an intellectual sense; I
mean it in the sense that Alfred North Whitehead intended when he defined
understanding as the “apperception of pattern as such.” As such. There’s
nothing more to it than that. You see, if we were to look at this room, and we
were to squint our eyes (and I’m doing this right now) and I see that the room
divides itself into people dressed in red and people dressed in blue. This is a
pattern and it tells me something about what I’m looking at. Now I shift my
depth of field. Now I’m looking at where men are sitting and where women are
sitting. This is a different pattern and it tells me more about what I am looking
at. The number of these patterns theoretically present in any construction is
infinite. That says to me, then, that the depth of understanding cannot be known.
It cannot be known. Everything is imminent. William Blake makes this point,
you know, that you can see infinity in a grain of sand.

So, understanding, then, is a precondition for creativity. And this understanding
is not so much intellectual as it is visual. Visual. And in thinking about this, I
realized what an influence on my own ideas in this area Aldus Huxley was. Not
the Huxley that we might ordinarily associate with my concerns, the Huxley of
The Doors of Perception and of Heaven and Hell, but the Huxley of a very
modest book that he wrote in the early 50’s that he called The Art of Seeing. The
Art of Seeing. And in that book, he makes the point that a good art education
begins with a good drawing hand. That to be able to coordinate the hand and eye
and to see in to nature—to see into the patterns present as such—is the
precondition for a kind of approach to the absolute. Now, out of this process of
seeing, which I’m calling understanding, the creative process ushers in novelty.
And many of you have heard me speak of novelty in another context: in the
context of nature being a novelty-producing engine of some sort. And ourselves,
almost as the handiwork of nature. But this same handiwork of nature which we
represent, we also internalize and re-express through the novelty of the human
world. Well, now, if we take seriously the shamanic model as a basis for our
authentic art, then certainly in the modern context, what we see missing from the
repertoire of the artist are shamanic techniques. And it’s for the discussion of
these shamanic techniques, I believe, that I was brought here this evening.

I want you to cast your mind back to a great seminal moment, germinal moment,
in the history of human thought, which was about 25,000 years ago. The great
glaciers that had covered most of the Eurasian land mass began to melt. And
human populations that had been islanded from each other for about 15
millennia began to re-contact each other and reconnect. Out of this comes what
is called the Magdalenian Revolution, from 18,000 to 22,000 years ago. And
what it is, is nothing less than a tremendous explosion of creativity and aesthetic
self-expression on the part of the human species. We find for the first time, bone
and antler technology takes its place alongside stone technology. Musical
instruments appear over a wide area. And cave paintings—some paintings so
remote from the surface of the ground that it takes several hours to reach them—
are painted and set up in dramatic tableaus specifically designed to bring
together sound, light and dance in hierophonies. Extravaganzas of aesthetic
output that invoke a kind of transcendent other, that human beings, for the first
time, are trying to come to grips with and make some kind of cultural statement
about. And this pulling into matter of the ideas of human beings—first, you
know, in the forms of beadwork and chipped stone and carved bone—within
twenty thousand years, ushers into the kinds of high civilizations that we see
around us, and points us toward the kind of extra-planetary mega civilization that
we can feel operating on our own present like a kind of great attractor.

Now, this whole intellectual adventure in exteriorization of ideas is entirely an
aesthetic adventure. Until very recently, utility is only a secondary consideration.
The real notion is a kind of seizure by the tremendum, by the other, that forces us
to take up matter—clay, bone, flint—and put it through a mental process where
we then excrete it as objects that have lodged within them ideas. This seems to be
the special unique transcendental function of the human animal; the production
and the condensation of ideas. And what made it possible for the human animal
is language. If you’re seeking the thumbprint of the transcendental on the myriad
phenomena that compose life on this planet, to my mind the place to look is
human language. Human language represents an ontological break of major
magnitude with anything else going on, on this planet. I mean yes, bees dance
and dolphins squeak and chimpanzees do what they do, but it’s a hell of a step
from there to Wallace Stevens, let alone William Shakespeare.

Language is the unique province of human beings, and language is the unique
tool of the artist. The artist is the person of language. And I’ve, you know, given
a lot of thought to this because the work that I’ve done with psilocybin
mushrooms and the observations of psychedelic plant use in the Amazon
centered around ayahuasca lead me to the conclusion that it is the synergy and
catalysis of language that lies behind not only the emergence of human
consciousness out of animal organization, but then its ability to set a course for a
transcendental dimension and pursue that course against all the vicissitudes of
biology and history over ten or fifteen thousand years. Language has made us
more than a group of pack-hunting monkeys; it’s made us a group of pack-
hunting monkeys with a dream.


And the fallout from that dream has given us our glory and our shame. Our
weaponry, our technology, our art, our hopes, our fears. All of this arises out of
our own ability to articulate and communicate with each other. And I use this in
the broad sense. I mean, for me, the glory of the human animal is cognitive
activity. Song, dance, sculpture, poetry… all of these cognitive activities… when
we participate in them, we cross out of the domain of animal organization and
into the domain of a genuine relationship to the transcendent. As you know,
shamans in all times and places gain their power through relationships with
helping spirits, which they sometimes call ancestors, which they sometimes call
nature spirits. But somehow the acquisition of a relationship to a disincarnate
intelligence is the precondition for authentic shamanism. Now, nowhere in our
world do we have an institution like that—that we do not consider pathological—
except in the now very thinly spread tradition of the muse. That artists—alone
among human beings—are given permission to talk in terms of “my inspiration,”
or “a voice which told me to do this,” or “a vision that must be realized.” The thin
line—the thin thread of shamanic descent into our profane world—leads through
the office of the artist. And so, if society is to somehow take hold of itself at this
penultimate moment, as we literally waver on the brink of planetary extinction,
then the artist like Ariadne following her thread out of the labyrinth, is going to
have to follow this shamanic thread back through time. And you know one of the
most dis-empowering things that has been done to us by the male-dominant
culture is to brush out our footprints into the past. We don’t have a clue as to
how we got here. Most people can’t think back further than the first Nixon
administration, let alone, you know, the arrival of the Vikings, the fall of Catal
Huyuk, the melting of the glaciers, so forth and so on. We have been dis-
empowered by a rational tendency to deny our irrational roots, which are kind of
an embarrassment to science, because science is the special province of the ego.
And magic and art are the special province of something else. I could name it,
but I won’t. It prefers to be unnamed, I think.

So, how seriously then, are we to take this, um, I’ll call it an obligation to follow
this shamanic thread back into time? Well, I think that it is a matter of saving our
own souls. That this is the real challenge. You know, I love to dig at the Yogans
by saying “nobody ever went into an Ashram with their knees knocking in fear
over the tremendous dimension they knew they were about to enter through
meditation.” Still truer, and more sad, is the notion that very few of us pick up
our sculpting tools or our airbrush with our knees knocking with fear because we
know we are invoking and acting with the muse at our elbow. And somehow, I
think the artists need to recover this sense of mystery. One of the most
depressing thing to me about the art scene—and I had a chance to reconnect with
this because I was just in New York—is that it now has a kind of directionless
quality. You can go into a gallery and you cannot tell whether it is 1990, 1980,
1970 or 1960. Because a kind of eschatological malaise has settled over art. All
notion of any forward movement toward a transcendental ideal has been put
aside for the exploration of idiosyncratic vision. And I grant you this is a
tension—and perhaps in the question period we can talk about this—there is a
tension between the individual vision and the notion of an attractor or a collective
vision which wants to be expressed. But to my mind this is the same
dichotomous tension that haunts the individual in his or her relationship to Tao.

You know, we don’t want to be lost in ego, but on the other hand, if we completely
express the Tao, we have no sense of self. The ideal seems to be a kind of
coincidencia positorum… a kind of literalizing of a paradox where what we have
is Tao, but we perceive it as ego. And in the application of this notion to the art
problem I would say what we need is a situation where schooling—if you want to
put it that way—or a tendency toward a coherent vision expressed by many
artists—is spontaneous. Each artist imagines that they are pursuing their own
vision. Yet obviously, they are in the grip of an archetype which is rising through
the medium of the unconscious. Now, the last time we saw this in American art
was in abstract impressionism. Which was probably—in terms of the values… in
terms of tension and the amount of emotional gain between one artistic moment
and another—the break between abstract impressionism and what preceded it
was the most radical break in American art in this century. Abstract
expressionism actually carried us into a confrontation with what the quantum
physicists were telling us. That the universe is field upon field of integrated
vibration. But there is no top level, there is no bottom level. That the ordinary
structures of space-time are simply that. That if we can rise out of the human
dimension, then we discover these larger, more integrated dimensions where
mind and nature somehow interpenetrate each other. A vision like that, a
coherent vision, has yet to announce itself here in the post-history pre-apocalypse
phase of things.

Well, I guess I have a kind of reactionary side when I think about the creative
endeavor. I believe that the psychedelic experience, as encountered by each of
you in the privacy of your own mind, or as encountered by a pre-literate society
somewhere in the world, that that psychedelic experience is in a way the Rosetta
stone—not only for understanding the encryption that our own lives represent,
each to ourselves—but it’s also a Rosetta stone for uncoding the historical
experience. Art is this endeavor to leave the animal domain behind. To create
another dimension, orthogonal to the concerns of ordinary history. And this
orthogonal domain, to my mind, is glimpsed most clearly in the psychedelic
experience. The psychedelic experience shows you more art in an hour and a half
than the human species has produced in fifteen or twenty thousand years. Now,
this is an incredible claim. This is why I make it. The energy barrier which
separates us from this tremendous repository of transcendental imagery is very
low. You know, it’s a matter of a little personal commitment and the substances
which make the transition possible. The perturbation of brain chemistry is easily
done. What is not so easily done is the assimilation of the consequences of this
act. Ordinarily, we assume that consciousness is channeled between
tremendously deep walls. That there is no way to force a confrontation with the
other or the transcendent or the unconscious. We tend to assume that we’re
going to have to do double-duty at the Ashram for three decades before we’re
vouchsafed even a glimpse into these places. This is not true.

Culture—and this is my message to artist and anyone else who cares to notice—is
a plot against the expansion of consciousness. And this plot prosecutes its goals
through a limiting of language. Language is the battleground over which the fight
will take place. Because what we cannot say, we cannot communicate. And by
say, I mean dance, paint, sing, mean. What we cannot say, we cannot
communicate. We can conceive of things that we cannot communicate. And I
think every one of us here has done that. And that’s a thrilling thing. That’s the
deep homework. The psychedelic inner astronaut sees things which no human
being has ever seen before, and no other human being will ever see again. But in
fact this has no meaning unless it is possible to carry it back into the collectivity.
And what motivates me to talk to groups like this is the belief that we do not have
centuries of gently unfolding time ahead of us in which to gently tease apart the
threads of the human endeavor and create a bright new world. That’s not our
circumstance. This is a fire in a madhouse. And to get a hold on the situation, I
think we are going to have to force the issue. One way of forcing the issue, or a
chemical definition of forcing the issue when you’re talking about a chemical
reaction, is catalysis. We want to catalyze consciousness. We want to move it
faster toward its goals, whatever those goals are. Well, I believe that to the
present moment, language… again in the broadest sense: speech, dance, musical
composition… language has just been allowed to grow like topsy. It’s been a kind
of every-man-for-himself situation. Now, what we really need, as we see
ourselves moving from one species among tens of thousands of species on this
planet, over the past ten thousand years, we have redefined ourselves. And now,
like it or not, we are the custodians of the destiny of this planet. Our decisions
affect every life form on the planet. And yet, we are still communicating with
each other with the extremely precise medium of small-mouth noises mediated by ignorance and hate. This doesn’t seem like the way to do business as we
approach the third millennium.

What I’m hopeful for, and what I actually see happening—I mean, I think we’re
on the right track—the birth of a new kind of humanity is going to take place. But
there are still a lot of decisions to be made. How violent shall this birth be, what
toll shall it take upon our mother the earth, what shape shall the baby be in when
it is finally delivered… these are the decisions that artists can mediate and
control. Most people are afraid of the unconscious. This is why you can have a
psychedelic compound like DMT, which is very much like ordinary brain
chemistry, appears completely physiologically harmless, only lasts ten minutes,
extremely powerful, and generally in this society you have no takers. This is
because there has been a failure of moral courage. And the failure of moral
courage is perhaps most evident in our own community: the community of the
artist. In a way, it’s the poets who have failed us. Because they have not provided
a song or sung a vision that we could all move in concert to. So now we are in the
absurd position of being able to do anything, and what we are doing is fouling our
own nest and pushing ourselves toward planetary toxification and extinction.
This is because the poets, the artists have not articulated a moral vision. The
moral vision must come from the unconscious. It doesn’t have to do, I believe,
with, you know, these post-meaning movements in art: deconstructionism, and
this sort of thing. But that art’s task is to save the soul of mankind. And that
anything less is a dithering while Rome burns. Because if the artists, who are
self-selected for being able to journey into the other… if the artists cannot find
the way, then the way cannot be found.

Ideology is extremely alien to art. Political ideology, I mean. And if you will but
notice it is political ideology that has been calling the shots for the last seven or
eight hundred years. We can transcend politics if we can put some other program
in place. You cannot transcend politics into a void. And I believe that a world
without ideology could be created, if what were put in place of ideology were the
notion or the realization of the good, the true and the beautiful. You know, the
three-tiered canon of the Platonic aesthetic. Reconnect the notion of the good,
the true and the beautiful; then, use psychedelics to empower the artist to go into
this vast dimension that surrounds human history on all sides to an infinite
depth, and return from that world with the transcendental images that can lift us
to a new cultural level. The muse is there. The dull maps that rationalism has
given us are nothing more than whistling past the graveyard by the bad little boys
of science. You only have to avail yourselves of these shamanic tools to
rediscover a nature which is not mute, as Sartre said in a culmination of the
modern viewpoint. Nature is not mute; it is man who is deaf. And the way to
open our ears, open our eyes, and reconnect with the intent of a living world is
through the psychedelics.

Now, as you know, biology runs on genes. And genes are the units of meaning of
heredity. But we could make a model of the informational environment that is
represented by culture. And in fact, this is done. A word has been invented:
meme. A meme is not the smallest unit of heredity; a meme is the smallest unit
of meaning of an idea. Ideas are made of memes. And I think the art community
might function with more efficiency in the production of visionary aesthetic
breakthroughs if we would think of ourselves as an environment modeled after
the natural environment, where we as artists are attempting to create memes
which enter an environment of other memes that are in competition with each
other, and out of this competition of memes, ever-more appropriate, adapted and
suitable ideas can gather and link themselves together into higher and higher
organisms.

Now, in order for this to happen, there is an obligation on each one of us to carry
our ideas clearly. Because in the same way that a gene must be copied correctly
to be replicated or it will cause some pathological mutation, a meme must be
correctly replicated or it will cause a pathological mutation. For instance, I would
say what the Nazis did to Frederick Nietzsche’s philosophy was a miscopied
meme [that] became a toxic mutation inside a culture. So, I would suggest to the
people in this room tonight, that you take a good look around at who’s here.
Artistic people, psychedelic people, look pretty much like everybody else out in
society. But we have come here tonight, self-selected for our interest in the
empowering capacity of psychedelic plants and the empowering capacity of art.
So we represent an affinity group; a population with the potential for mutagenic
impact on the ideological structures on the rest of society. So, look around.
Someone here has what you need. And if you can only figure out who it is, you
can make a novel connection to move them into a new level of creativity.

Well, what is this new level of creativity? Some of you may be familiar with the
theme that is very big in medieval religious art, which is the apocalypse of St.
John or of somebody; there are a number of these apocalypses. And I think that
many of us may come out of a secular background or have not given this kind of a
religious idea too much consideration. But my idiosyncratic conclusion, based on
trying to be honest about the content of the psychedelic experience, is that
human history really is on a collision course with a transcendental object of some
sort. It is not going to be business as usual into the endless unfolding confines of
the future. The very fact that human history is occurring on this planet; the very
fact that a primate has left the ordinary pattern of primate activity and gone into
the business of running stock markets and molecular biology labs and art
museums indicates to me the nearby presence in another dimension of a kind of
hyper organizing force, or what I call the transcendental object. And I believe
that this transcendental object is casting an enormous shadow over the human
historical landscape. So that if you’re back in ancient Judea, you have an
anticipation of the Messiah. If you are at Eleusis, at the height of the practice of
the Eleusinian mysteries, you have an anticipation of the dark god.

These anticipations of an unspeakable transcendent reality, that are always
clothed in the assumptions of the individual artist and the society in which he or
she is working, are in fact genuine. You don’t have to give yourself over to
fundamentalist religion to connect with the fact that human history is an
adventure.

This adventure has a number of startling reverses and sudden plot shifts that are
very difficult to anticipate, and that we are coming up on one of those. The
civilization that was created out of the collapse of the medieval world has now
shown its contradictions to be unbearable. And though no one of us knows what
the shape of the new civilization will be, somehow in the singing of the ayahuasca
songs in the rainforests, in the tremendous hypermetallic transcendental off-
planetary flash of psilocybin, in the teaching of the self-transforming machine
elves that seem to dwell in the DMT dimension, we see that the ordinary linear
expectations of history are breaking down, and that the truth of the imminence of
the mystery is breaking through all the structures of denial of the male-
dominator paradigm that has been in place so long.

The way to make this birth process smooth, the way to bring it to a conclusion
that will not betray the thousands and thousands of generations of people who
suffered birth and disease and migration and starvation and lonely death… so
that we could sit here this evening… the redeeming of the human enterprise all
lies, then, in helping this thing come to birth. And each artist is an antenna to the
transcendental other, and as we go with our own history into that thing, and then
create a unique confluence of our uniqueness, and its uniqueness, we collectively
create an arrow. An arrow out of history, out of time, perhaps even out of matter,
that will redeem, then, the idea that man is good. Redeem the idea that man is
good. This is the promise of art, and its fulfillment is never more near than the
present moment.

Thank you very much.

From a talk in Port Heuneme, CA, sponsored by Carnegie Museum of Art, early
1990’s. Transcribed from Palenque Norte podcast 123 (7:18 - 58:03).