BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism, Kirkus Reviews, 2002

A quest after the possibilities of psychedelics and a case history of one man’s forays into the hands of these supernatural emissaries, from journalist and Open City founder Pinchbeck. Plagued by existential questions (“Why this life? Why anything?”), the author tries after deep meanings, abiding hopes, or, better yet, transcendence, through the agency of chemical self-discovery via those visionary catalysts psilocybin, LSD, DMT (and its evil twin DPT), iboga, and ayahuasca. Pinchbeck is appalled by our culture’s faith in materialism and rationalism at the expense of intuition and ritual. He wants to tap the vestigial awareness of magical realms, the archaic beliefs embodied in the works of Shakespeare, Artaud, Walter Benjamin–the psychedelic avatars. But he is not content with someone else’s experience with transcendence; he wants his own relation to the universe. Thus, he turns to the shamanic cultures for revelation of the nonordinary world beyond the tug of Western gravity. The stories Pinchbeck relates of his experiences in Gabon, Mexico, and Ecuador, worked in and around the extensive literary research he has done into psychedelia, have both an awkward comedy and the focus of a pilgrim. You can’t help but smile when he tells of the Gabonese shaman trying to squirrel more money out of him, and you can’t help but be impressed by the compacted memory theater of an iboga-fueled Bwiti initiation. For the DMT experience, which Pinchbeck showcases as “instant proof, beyond any doubt, of the existence of esoteric realities of a nonmaterialist Mystery worth exploring,” you surely had to be there: his imagery of the trip doesn’t support the fervor of his conclusions. Still, who is prepared to fault or stanch the “yearning for meaning and spiritual truth in a world that seemed devoid of both” that prompted Pinchbeck’s quest? Arguable, but compelling for its insistence that there are more games in town than the Western cultural moment.