Terence McKenna at his house in Hawaii by Dean Chamberlain
Renowned science writer John Horgan, author of The End of Science, Rational Mysticism and several other books, pens a regular column at Scientific American where he takes a closer look at some of the quirkier topics that can still fall under the purview of “Science.” His current column pertains to Terence McKenna, the late psychedelic bard who spoke of the “self-transforming machine elves from hyperspace” he’d meet though psychedelic drug use.
What interests Horgan the most pertains to McKenna’s so-called Timewave Zero theory of history, which holds that something “novel” and mind-bending would happen on December 21, 2012. This notion was “revealed” to him by an “alien intelligence” during a psychedelic experiment conducted by McKenna and his younger brother Dennis, in the Amazon jungle in 1971 (Dennis McKenna, today a respected ethnopharmacologist, was the “channel” through which this entity supposedly spoke, has apparently never been much of a believer in his brother’s apocalyptic theories).
The Timewave Zero formula purports to mathematically “decode” the 64 hexagrams of the King Wen sequence of the I Ching into something that graphs fractal patterns of “novelty” and particularly active eras in history, culminating in a singularity point of infinite complexity that he predicted would happen at the end of the 13th b’ak’tun of the Maya calendar.
McKenna believed that all of human history and cultural and scientific evolution were moving inexorably towards a “strange attractor” at the end of time. Timewave Zero was later codified into a software program that seemingly mapped major moments in humanity’s evolution with the Timewave’s peaks and valleys.
McKenna’s theory, as written about at length in his books The Invisible Landscape and True Hallucinations, is a fascinating hermeneutic intellectual construction, and one that allowed for him to spin poetic and truly mind-bending thoughts about history, man’s place in the cosmos and of course, a sort of psychedelically-constructed apocalypticism that kept audiences absolutely spellbound, but rationally speaking, it’s wild-eyed, tied-dyed nonsense for soft-brained people…
John Horgan went to hear McKenna speak at a 1999 talk in Manhattan sponsored by the Open Center (I was in attendance at the talk myself, more on this below) and interviewed the psychedelic spokesman the following day. The object of Horgan’s line of inquiry was, not so surprisingly, to ask McKenna if he was actually serious about his 2012 predictions:
So what did McKenna really think would happen on December 21, 2012? “If you really understand what I’m saying,” he replied, “you would understand it can’t be said. It’s a prediction of an unpredictable event.” The event will be “some enormously reality-rearranging thing.” Scientists will invent a truly intelligent computer, or a time-travel machine. Perhaps we will be visited by an alien spaceship, or an asteroid. “I don’t know if it’s built into the laws of spacetime, or it’s generated out of human inventiveness, or whether it’s a mile and a half wide and arrives unexpectedly in the center of North America.”
But did he really think the apocalypse would arrive on December 21, 2012? “Well…” McKenna hesitated. “No.” He had merely created one mathematical model of the flow and ebb of novelty in history. “It’s a weak case, because history is not a mathematically defined entity,” he said. His model was “just a kind of fantasizing within a certain kind of vocabulary.” McKenna still believed in the legitimacy of his project, even if his particular model turned out to be a failure. “I’m trying to redeem history, make it make sense, show that it obeys laws,” he said.
But he couldn’t stop there. His eyes glittering, he divulged a “huge–quote unquote—coincidence” involving his prophecy. After he made his prediction that the apocalypse would occur on December 21, 2012, he learned that thousands of years ago Mayan astronomers had predicted the world would end on the very same day. “And now there has been new scholarship that they were tracking the galactic center and its precessional path through the ecliptic plane. What does all this mean?” McKenna leaned toward me, his eyes slitted and his teeth bared. “It means we are trapped in software written by the ghost of Jorge Luis Borges!” He threw his head back and cackled. “Tell that to the National Academy of Sciences!”
McKenna, when pressed said to Horgan, “I’m Irish! What’s your excuse!”
Although I have listened to (literally) hundreds of hours of his recorded talks, attended many, many speeches and even a weekend-long seminar (incongruously held on the outdoor “western village” set of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) I can’t claim that I really knew Terence McKenna all that well, but I was most certainly acquainted with him and, in fact, was due to take him over the bridge to meet Howard Bloom in Brooklyn (Bloom was bedridden at the time) later in the very same day that Horgan interviewed him (McKenna cancelled because he was feeling tired; two weeks later he would have seizures and be diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer).
I’ve written before of how Timothy Leary expressed extreme exasperation about McKenna’s theories (In 1996 Leary shouted at me as I tried to defend him, that “Terence McKenna is a High Episcopalian!”) and how coldly dismissive Robert Anton Wilson was of his ideas (Bob would just roll his eyes and shake his head whenever the topic of Terence or 2012 came up). My take on the whole Timewave Zero/2012 thing and whether or not he truly believed it or not, is that “No,” I do not think that Terence McKenna wholeheartedly believed in his own psychedelic blarney. I think that he DID believe it at one time, but from personal observations on several occasions throughout the 1990s, when I would see him after one of his talks and observe his interaction with others, I don’t think this belief stayed with him.
To be perfectly honest, he often felt downright cynical to me when he discussed the Timewave Zero theory because it seemed like he knew he was spouting bullshit and it caused him to be curt, even disrespectful at times, to some of the people—especially the New Age true believer-types—who were in attendance at his talks.
Granted I might have only been around McKenna when he was feeling grumpy or wasn’t up for playing his expected role as a “guru” that day, but this is what I saw with my own eyes.
Thank you Steven Otero!