THE SHROOM SHROOM SAP
I've been pretty sniffy with (if not downright dismissive of) the last few 'drug' books I've read or had to review (including the one I was most looking forward to reading, Sadie Plant's), but here's something I can thoroughly recommend:
SHROOM: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom, by Andy Letcher [Faber & Faber]
The title, and the cover print of a well known 'still' from Alice in Wonderland made me inwwardly groan a bit, and I expected just another lazy run through of the hand-me-down History, with all the usual boxes ticked. But this is a critical history, and Letcher takes nothing and no one at face value. He goes back over the myths and mythologies - and the perpetrators of same - and subjects them to a long overdue scholarly exegesis. There are highly critical (but balanced) deconstructions of, inter alia, the lore and legacies of Gordon Wasson and Terence McKenna. Like I say, the book's roots are in steely gimlet-eyed scholarly research - but it's written in lovely, loping, UN-academic prose, that keeps you utterly engaged like a faint sniff in the ozone of some yearned for Soma.
Letcher's trick and charm is that he retains essential 'faith', as it were, in aspects of the psychedelic experience, but clears the ceremonial ground of all the accumulated rubbish and gossip and untruth. (He's very good for instance, on how the notion of the 'shaman' is pretty much a trick-of-the-light Western construct, an Orientalist imagining, or, at most, an exploitative and wrong-headedly Romantic traducing of the far murkier and more diffuse reality.)
I actually only finish about 1 in every dozen books I start these days, so disappointing do I find most published work; this is turning out to be one of those I not only finish, but reread while still reading it (if that makes sense), and one of those books I start copying out quotes from and sending off to interested friends and correspondents.
One Letcher para this morning about how the dubious notion of the 'shaman' gradually transformed into the Romantic idea of Artists as "outsiders, set apart by their unique, inherent sensibility or genius, suffering for their art but only so that they could affect, transform and momentarily elevate audiences to their own level through the brilliance of their vision and the creative force that flowed through them..." made me think about a lot of the things we've all been saying (or thinking) about Syd B in the last few days.
What's left out of the account of course (with Nick Drake and others, too) is the dark and grubby, suicidal and unceasing pain that is the other, twilight side of occasional illumination. (And the constant spectre of any addiction.) This is where the analogy goes wrong - because if shamen there were, they were healers, starting with themselves. Any 'flight' into the Beyond was taken within severely circumscribed rules and boundaries, and usually as part of a tight knit and supportive community. 'Shamen' per se were as much like tribal employees, local GPs, as they were any kind of superstar 'soul doctor'. They didnt blow open a whole in the social atmosphere - they kept it safe and functioning and functional.
More fanciful readings of Mad Syd and Saint Nick sometimes propose a kind of quasi-Christic function for their downfall - that they died (or died into madness) so we didnt have to. A more accurate reading might be that their over sensitive radar equipment picked up on what lay ahead... and that far from being special cases, outsider pariah exemplars, they stand in for the tens and teens of thousands of nice British children who were to come, losing a supposedly golden inheritance to depression, addiction and disillusionment. Pastoral utopia become care-in-the-community atopia or foil wrapped dystopia. Part of the lure of the Nick/Syd mythos is of inbetween places and inbetween times I think ... all the long unbearable everyday days and nights that are neither crushing pain black or lucy in the skies diamond white - which is what makes all those later, latter day photos of Syd so improbably poignant. He very much wasn't a 'recluse', insofar as that much abused word still has any residual meaning...
For here he is on his bike, and its not a psychedelic bike, its just one part of a picture of one of those chilly but sunny October days we all know and love so well, along with Sainsburys bag, warm gloves, and local newspapers ...; a nothing special day, a day in which we probably waste more time than we dutifully put it to use, a day of Rolos and fags and endless cups of tea before the TV, maybe a little housework, maybe a lot of staring out the window musing on times gone by, a few old records playing wistfully in the background.
"You'll lose your mind at play..."
posted by Ian 7/15/2006 12:20:00 PM