Last summer I was fortunate enough to visit a remote area of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, hike into Horseshoe Canyon and view ancient rock art, pictographs and petroglyphs, in what is called The Great Gallery. Like many who visit the site I was inspired with a sense of awe and wonder. The title of a painting by Gauguin popped into my mind. It’s one of his Tahitian oils: Where Have We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
In Notes from the Edge Times, Daniel Pinchbeck is on the trail of those same questions. The son of artist Peter Pinchbeck and writer Joyce Johnson, Pinchbeck grew up in New York and became a journalist. His previous books, Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, gained him a reputation and following.
This new book is a collection of columns that have appeared mostly on his website Reality Sandwich or in the magazine Conscious Choice. His basic premise is that “… our global society is going to have to undergo a quite sudden transition from competitive and possessive behavior to cooperation and sharing if we want our species to survive, let alone thrive, into the future. Considering the ecological crisis of species extinction and climate change and the fragility of our support systems, this change has to happen in an extraordinarily compressed timeframe.”
In exploring this thesis, he touches on subjects such as shamanism, psychedelics, the Norway spiral, psychic energy, extraterrestrial intelligence and the Hopi Blue Star Kachina. While this may sound far out and edge city, the writing is actually reasonable and readable. Pinchbeck comes off more as an open-minded idealist than a true believer, admitting that he is often attracted to theories that are “unfathomably far-fetched and exuberantly entertaining.” He spends a surprising amount of time on economics—Marx, capitalism, the current financial crisis—and seems genuinely committed to finding ways to actively participate in positive economic and social change.
There’s nothing brand new here. In fact a lot of it reminds me of things I was reading in the early 1970s. Pinchbeck talks about Buckminster Fuller quite a bit, and Rudolf Steiner and Sri Aurobindo and even Timothy Leary, who may or may not be dead. Whether this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius or the 2012 end times, there is much here that is worthwhile to consider and grok.
Some parts make me think of the old Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber skit on Saturday Night Live, where Steve Martin (as Theodoric) would challenge the backward superstitious beliefs of the time with a high sounding and idealistic new scientific view, only to follow this, after a pause, with, “Nah!”
Here’s Pinchbeck (as Theodoric): “The fall of capitalism and the crisis of the biosphere could induce mass despair and misery, or they could impel the creative adaptation and conscious evolution of the human species. We could attain a new level of wisdom and build a compassionate global society, in which resources are shared equitably while we devote ourselves to protecting threatened species and repairing damaged ecosystems. Considering the lightning-like speed of global communication and new social technologies, this change could happen with extraordinary speed.”
In truth I don’t mind Pinchbeck’s idealism and optimism. I hope he’s right. My own view is not as pessimistic on the one hand or as optimistic on the other. I don’t think financial collapse and climate change will be quite as drastic or immediate as Pinchbeck and others prophesy, nor do I think change for the better will happen overnight if enough of us get our intentions right. In other words I think we will continue to muddle through pretty much as we always have—best of times, worst of times—on into the next century and beyond.
I will say that it has been a good and healthy thing for me to read this book, and I want my twenty-something son to read it. It reminds me of my idealistic youth and writers I read then. It made me think, for the first time in quite a while, of Gary Snyder’s great piece Four Changes, which stands up wonderfully well forty years on. Pinchbeck’s take on the current economic situation brought to mind Henry Miller’s Money and How It Gets That Way, which I reread to my amusement and edification. And his ideas about changes in human consciousness sent me to William Burroughs, who was ready to mutate and take over the reality studio before Pinchbeck was born.
Refreshing, stimulating, and a bit of a wake-up call, Notes from the Edge Times sheds valuable light on the current situation. Pinchbeck’s concise and readable prose provides an excellent clearinghouse for ideas, books and social movements from people who refuse to be overwhelmed by the increasingly complex modern world, but continue to explore alternatives and work to bring about positive change.