Daniel Pinchbeck: Breaking Open the Head

One of my favorite images is an illustration on a postcard of a broken light bulb, blue on the inside, out of which a fried egg oozes, in shades of orange. It brings to mind ideas run amok and “your brain on drugs” (from those TV commercials years ago). I always get a chuckle out of it, so you might imagine my delight when assigned to review a book called Breaking Open the Head. I believe, as William Blake wrote, that “The Road of Excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom.”

Part diligent researcher, part raconteur, part Captain Trips, Daniel Pinchbeck — writer par excellence and son of Joyce Johnson, writer and Beat Generation alumna — takes readers on a wild ride that is inspiring, informative, amusing, and at times, terrifying. He asks, “If we don’t explore the nature of our minds as deeply as possible, using whatever tools available to us, what kind of world can we hope to create?. . . What kind of world are we creating now?” Pinchbeck’s main motive for writing Breaking Open the Head was a feeling of existential emptiness, and an attempt to rectify this by delving into “traditional and well-known visionary catalysts including psilocybin-containing mushrooms, peyote, the Amazonian potion ayahuasca, LSD, iboga and dimethyltriptamine (DMT).” For brevity’s sake, he did not cover drugs like marijuana and ecstasy.

The word psychedelic means “mind manifesting,” and was coined in the 1950s. Oddly, as Pinchbeck points out, the discovery of LSD occurred only a year after nuclear fission was demonstrated. So many interesting coincidences and facts emerge throughout Breaking Open the Head. The book title, Breaking Open the Head, is what the African Bwiti tribe of Gabon calls the iboga root trance ceremony, during which the soul is temporarily released and the initiate is shown the outline of his fate, somewhere in the African spiritual cosmos. (“Because this is a story not just about chemicals but about occult correspondences and psychic events.”)

A brave “participatory journalist,” Daniel Pinchbeck the world to Gabon, the Amazonian jungle, Ecuador, the Burning Man festival in Black Rock City (“The entire event spoofs some 1970s retro sci-fi fantasy of post apocalyptic tribalism. . . “), and ingests many mind-expanding, soul-releasing, mostly plant-derived chemical substances. “Psychedelics are catalysts for transformation, and when you taken them, you have to be ready to transform.” He then travels onto other astral planes but somehow always comes back to write descriptive passages about his trips:

(Ibogaine) “The trip turned to a cinematic cyclone, whirling images and scenes at high speed. A series of unknown houses appeared, ghostly gray suburban landscapes I had never seen before. I drifted down into them as they faded away.”

(Mushrooms) “… colors and sounds deepened, the effect of a pattern of light and shadows could become almost unbearably beautiful… On higher doses, with eyes closed, I saw those Aztec-patterned Sci-fi civilizations flying past me at jet speed…”

(Mushrooms and Moclobemide) “If I am going to hallucinate, I thought before eating the mushrooms, show me something related to the majestic Palenque ruins, evoke the cruel and silent Mayan gods. Instead, here confronting me were a bunch of happy elves. This was leprechaun kitsch, an outtake from a Disney flick.”

(DPT) “At moments there seemed to be some incredibly elegant yet violently orgiastic party taking place with beautiful females in evening gowns and men in Edwardian topcoats in the spacious parlors of a huge and opulent mansion… the worlds revealed were like endless facets of a twirling diamond — I felt the real possibility of being trapped inside any of those facets, a sort of soul-prison, for eternity. That was the terror of it… DPT was a postmodern demonic MTV psychedelic. . .”

I’d be surprised if other readers were motivated to do the same; I know that the more harrowing of Pinchbeck’s experiences were caveat enough for me. His attitude is serious, not at all hedonistic (unlike most casual users or abusers). Fortunately, Daniel Pinchbeck came out the other end of the tunnel sans meeting the oncoming train. Withal, in the marvelous hodgepodge of Breaking Open the Head, I was thoroughly entertained and informed by a book that combines a survey of science, history, spiritualism, literature, shamanism, experimental drugs, age-old potions, and self-discovery. To capture meaning in life anew, lost seekers like Pinchbeck generally try to discover through psychedelia a spiritual dimension they’d been missing. This excites me as a literary premise. Pinchbeck’s personal solution took him on a brave, exciting, dangerous path — “breaking open the head,” indeed! At least, he stopped short of trepanation (a practice of boring a hole into the skull).

My only criticism of this really excellent book lies with Pinchbeck’s inaccurate history of acid rock. I mean, how could you leave out Bay Area icons of the genre such as Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company?

As a lucky survivor of the psychedelic ’70s, I heartily endorse Breaking Open the Head. I particularly like Pinchbeck’s observation, “In the modern world, the artist took over the role of shaman.” At book’s end, he advocates, with a hopeful spirit, a sort of do-it-yourself shamanism, for us “As spiritual warriors, we must take responsibility for the plight of our species. To break the spell of our culture’s death-trap deceptions and hypnotic distractions, we need the courage to confront what lies behind the open doors of our own minds.” I’m with you, Captain Pinchbeck, beam me up!

(printed with permission from the American Book Review, July/August 2003, Volume 24, Number 5.)

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