Erik Davis on Fri, 7 Apr 2000 21:35:22 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Terence on death and dying


Terence McKenna -- stand-up alchemist, hardcore psychonaut, and
garage scholar of consciousness -- died on Monday, April 3. He left behind
a legacy of wonderful words,  deeply weird visions, and about the most
interesting psychedelic musings imaginable. He was 53.

The following are some excerpts from interviews that I conducted with
McKenna in late October and early November last year, in
preparation for a profile that will appear in the May issue of Wired. For
obvious reasons, I have chosen 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 pat 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.

Erik Davis


TM: 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.

ED: How did you initially react?

TM: 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.

ED: Tell me what that play is like.

TM: 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.

ED: What did you think about?

TM: 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?

ED: What about the fact that it's a brain tumor?

TM: 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


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.


TM: 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.

ED: "It" being?...

TM: Life, or the management of your persona and reputation.  So it's all
about getting through life without disgracing oneself in some fundamental

ED: Do you think your illness might be turned into a spectacle?

TM: 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.

ED: Does it bother you that you probably wont be around for 2012?

TM: 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.

ED: Your website is pretty cool.

TM: It needs work, especially if its gonna be me for eternity. It
definitely needs work.


ED: What do psychedelics say about all this?

TM: 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?


ED: How have you changed emotionally?

TM: 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



Erik Davis       +1-415-541-5016 vox
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