April 24, 2007

Book Review

Published in Jason Louv's Ultraculture Journal One (2007):

2012: THE RETURN OF QUETZALCOATL (Tarcher, 2006)

Daniel Pinchbeck's 2012 is a continuation of the adventures he described in 2003's BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD. As a fan of that previous account of his "psychedelic journey into the heart of contemporary shamanism", I have been very curious to find out what Pinchbeck has been up to since his initation into the worlds of ayahusca, DMT, iboga, and psilocybin.

The first half sets a terrific pace. Though built on ideas and experiences that are more or less canonical and well-documented, it is thrilling to see them all lined up in order. Pinchbeck has done his homework and explores areas that many self-conscious psychonauts tend to avoid; for example, while lingering on the subject of crop-circles, he avoids trying to prove or disprove the phenomena and instead interprets our mass-rejection or mystification of them as a tender spot in our culture that exposes how tenaciously humans are clinging to an understanding of the universe that is unraveling out from under us. His vision of these last few years leading up to the end of the Mayan calendar—and life as we currently know it—is potent and infectious, and I began to make a list in my head of friends that I ought to lend this book to when I finished it.

However as the book marches on it becomes really evident that there are undeniable problems with not only his theories, but his motivations as well. The dissolution of his family life (due in no small part to the adventures he endures) coincides neatly with an impairment in his focus. While anyone with a magical bent to their thinking is able to appreciate the synchronicities and cosmic giggles that propel one forward through life, few people magnify those coincidences to global significance and apply them to the fates of everyone around them. Pinchbeck is honest about calling himself out when he senses his insecurity or baser instincts polluting his quest, and then his keen self-analysis eventually leads him back on track again. For every one of those moments, however, the reader will pick out two more in which Pinchbeck leaps from conclusion to conclusion with frighteningly subjective abandon, feats which no adept would ever perform without a firm grasp on oneself and one's limitations. That the ordeals resulting from this sloppiness ultimately lead to Pinchbeck's receiving a profound annunciation (from the great Quetzalcoatl itself) is cold comfort indeed: by the time this transmission occurs, the reader's head is likely to be so sore from repeated smackings that it can't possibly accept Pinchbeck's revelation as more authoritative than anything one might cook up on one's own, given enough bark-scrapings and jungle voyages. And by the time Pinchbeck begins handing over the bullhorn to prophets whom even he considers to be of dubious value, such as Dreamspell Calendar inventor José Arguilles, mental-health breaks between chapters become necessary.

With so many people in the world clamoring for Apocalypse, it can be hard to avoid playing that game. This book pulls you into it, at first calmly inviting you to play, then later begging and demanding that you finish what you started. There were many points where I had to put the book down for a couple of days so I could fairly weigh his ideas; his background matches my own in so many ways that it was easy to get swept up in agreement with his lyrical voice and his incredible citations from countless scientists, thinkers, and miscellaneous holy folks. But his book does not hold up to the level of scrutiny that he holds his role models to. In laying the book aside and trying to follow his arguments to their their logical conclusions, I found that they seemed dissolve without his voice there to energetically perpetuate them. I began to see this book, however bold and inspiring, as the product of a very neurotic and conflicted person. By the end, when Pinchbeck finds himself struggling to shake himself free from the influence of Santo Daime practitioners and New Age healers, his theorizing seems almost frantic. However I will say that my own worldview feels very sharpened by reading it—having to constantly dis- and reassemble my own philosophy before Pinchbeck's dark mirror was strenuous exercise that left me refreshed and exhausted.

I actually feel pretty concerned for the guy, because I believe the transmission he's been given by Quetzalcoatl is legitimate, and that his work is significant and enlightening, even ennobling-- to him. Unfortunately, being a writer, he is completely oriented toward broadcasting everything he thinks and experiences and projecting it onto the world at large, which leads to not only some grievous errors in literary judgment, but also inters him in a self-made prison of "prophecy". Without his ability and drive to write and deliver his prophecy to the masses teetering on the brink of Apocalypse, he'd probably be enjoying an incredible period of enlightenment. However, without the impulse to include and save us all somehow, I doubt he would have ever set out on this journey to begin with. Because of it, he experiences the most intimately documented magical breakdown I've ever come across. By the end of the book, at the point where he's hoping the reader will finally be prepared to absorb the significance of Quetzalcoatl's message, his words practically spasm on the page.

To offer contrast, not long afterward I re-read the end of Alan Moore's comic PROMETHEA. The last fifth of the series depicts the Apocalypse as a massive, inevitable unifying shift in consciousness, using artwork and fictional characters to illustrate almost exactly the same ideas that Pinchbeck delivers. I was struck by the differences. Despite drawing from many of the same paradigms and sources, the work of Moore's team is just plainly superior—more succinct, gentler, less subjective, and more challenging than frightening. It is also more persuasive and more believable, despite being embedded within a comic book. Moore makes the Apocalypse game seem like an unavoidable fact of existence in our modern world, but one that the individual is free to conceive of however they will; in addition, Moore lays out sketches of the Eastern and Western magical traditions, giving would-be voyagers a leg up in discovering original prophecies of their own. Pinchbeck starts out with the same idea, and for the first two hundred pages 2012 is authentic as only an autobiography can be, but as he presses on and his inexperience and insecurity begin to catch up with him, ultimately the only way he can reconcile them is to imagine that we are all in the same boat as he is—and it happens to be one where his help is needed to steer. With all due respect, I'd rather go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

I'd still recommend Pinchbeck's first book to almost anyone, especially to those taking tentative steps toward exploring worlds just outside our own, but the second book seems only recommendable as a warning of what an individual will go through if one takes the path of initiation without having done the necessary work on oneself over a natural amount of time. I'm grateful to have read this, but I'll have reservations about picking up his next one—that is, if it turns out that they are still printing books in the years leading up to the great Arrival.

A mystic may swim through the same water that a madman drowns in, but if his connection to this world or to his will is not strong, then he will also be crushed by the same gravity that everyday human slobs effortlessly walk their tiny dogs through. In racing through a lifetime's worth of initiations in just eight years, this seems to me what Pinchbeck is running up against; in the closing of the book he leaves an uncertain image of what his life is now or what he plans to do with his hard-earned prophecy. He is as human an Apocalyptic prophet as one could dream up, a neurotic New Yorker struggling to stamp out willful ignorance and self-obsession on both a personal and global level.