The End is High, The New York Times, 2006

DANIEL PINCHBECK has done a lot of psychedelics, and he’s here again to tell us about those trips and the resulting dreams, daemons and synchronicities, as well as the forthcoming “global decimation” that might be avoided if people begin “confronting their habitual mechanisms of avoidance and denial, overcoming their fear and conditioned cynicism.”


The Return of Quetzalcoatl.

By Daniel Pinchbeck.

408 pp. Jeremy Tarcher/Penguin. $26.95.

In his previous book, “Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey Into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism,” Pinchbeck mined much of the same material and substances. “2012” pushes the baggie a little further and “advances a radical theory: that human consciousness is rapidly transitioning to a new state . . . a transformed realization, of time and space and self.” He adds: “The transition is already under way . . . and will become increasingly evident as we approach the year 2012.” That’s the year the Mayan “Great Cycle” ends.

In 2012, urban liberals and fundamentalist Christians alike lose their heads to the Pinchbeckian guillotine, a machine made not of wood and steel but the after-effects of DMT (“a seven-minute rocket-shot into an overwhelming other dimension”), ayahuasca, magic mushrooms, LSD and iboga (“a psychedelic root bark that is the center of the Bwiti cult”).

Of the multiple difficulties encountered by the writer of drug-induced-mind-expansion narratives, none is more important to overcome than that of transferring the effect of the drug to his prose, a near impossibility attained by only a few — William S. Burroughs comes to mind, as well as Thomas De Quincey.

Not so Pinchbeck. His descriptions of his trips are New Age narcissistic and fortune-cookie cute. Apparently, when you are mindblown on iboga, the root teacher speaks in CAPS. Among the messages Pinchbeck receives: “PRIMORDIAL WISDOM TEACHER OF HUMANITY.” While on a “fungal sacrament,” Pinchbeck describes the Nevada morning desert at Burning Man as “a Narnia sunrise of golden cloud fingers and taffeta swirls feather-spinning across the horizon.” No thanks, dude, I’ll pass on the fungal.

If you ingest psychedelics and write about their galactic psychic healing properties and tell your readers you offer them your book “as a gift handed backward through space-time, from beyond the barrier of a new realm,” you need at least an ounce of humor and warmth to go along with it all. It’s hard to swallow the counterculture self-help pill — or leaf or drink or droplet — offered by a self-proclaimed “somewhat bohemian and alienated intellectual,” especially a bohemian intellectual who writes plodding sentences that utterly fail to render his ascent into other, better worlds of consciousness and sensation.

Pinchbeck insists the crisis he’s trying to help us solve is global, but throughout “2012” there is ample evidence that the crisis is Pinchbeck’s own: there’s his recently dead father; the birth of his daughter; the wealthy and beautiful partner who is unable to match his same high enthusiasm for psychedelics and an open relationship; the witnessing of the 9/11 attacks from his partner’s Soho loft; the inability to score, while high, in an Amazonian jungle with a woman who calls herself a priestess; and ultimately being forced to live in an underheated South Williamsburg share apartment. The high seas of the global psychic crisis are rough.

Pinchbeck’s thinking suffers from the deep navel-gazing that comes so naturally to this son of urban humanist materialist liberals, the very class he disparages for their atheism, passivity and greed. Not that he is off the mark. Most of the people who once sang Beatles anthems and marched for civil rights are now more concerned with the stock market and real estate — not to mention the quality of the new sod job at the golf course — than with world peace or the welfare of indigenous peoples. But haven’t we known this for at least two decades? And will doing psychedelics really help usher in a new era of living and being?

Pinchbeck’s censure of corporate globalization and hegemonic thought is well meant. Petro-domination and the desecration of the biosphere are real dangers that require immediate attention. But Pinchbeck’s reasoning moves quickly from practical, thoughtful criticisms to the conclusion that near the end of 2012 the world as we know it will end. It’s akin to stating that because a 10-year-old shoplifted a pack of gum, next Wednesday her entire family will turn blue.

“2012” occasionally engages the reader solely because of the cast of characters Pinchbeck befriends and cites — crop circle hoaxsters and devotees, believers in extraterrestrials, physicists and poets, time concept revisionists and their acolytes.

Pinchbeck’s most lucid writing surrounds the two periods of his life that receive the least attention in this book: his youth in Manhattan, in the atmosphere of truly avant-garde writers, personalities and artists (his parents among them), and a visit to Hopiland, at the end of the book. His rage at what he sees as the thieving and wasting of the Hopiland aquifer by a coal mining company, as assisted by Enron, is the kind of writing you want from a muckraker and subversive. Rage at social injustice is infinitely preferable to claims of drug-induced prescience and visionary flights, but Pinchbeck’s romantic subservience to psychedelics and their doubtful global psychic breakthroughs (he liberally uses the words “might,” “could” and “perhaps”) soften the anti-establishment punches he occasionally throws.

Since when can a guy on mushrooms land a punch? And no one likes a global morality bully who’s tripping. Whatever happened to just taking drugs? Visionary flights sound like such a downer. But if things change in 2012, please paint me blue.


Anthony Swofford is the author of “Jarhead.” His first novel, “Exit A,” will be published early next year.