NOVEMBER 10, 2018
IN HIS LARB REVIEW of Michael Pollan’s new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, James Penner claims that most “books about psychedelics can be placed in three mental categories: ‘psychedelic boosterism,’ ‘mystical hyperbole,’ and ‘New Age rubbish.’” Pollan’s book is different, Penner claims, because the author clearly outlines his reservations, offering a modest and measured report on recent psychedelic research, a field still haunted by a previous generation’s extravagant defenses of the life-affirming powers of LSD.
If Penner’s three categories accurately reflect the possibilities, Tao Lin’s Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change is a charming and idiosyncratic example of “psychedelic boosterism.” According to Penner, “the psychedelic convert is bound to be too ‘exuberant’ or ‘enthusiastic’ in describing his or her drug experiences,” yet Lin’s advocacy is largely restrained and balanced. While admitting that he still struggles “not to drift toward meaninglessness, depression, [and] disempowering forms of resignation,” Lin defends his own consumption of mind-expanding drugs as a lens through which to see the world as “awe-inspiring and excitingly bizarre and complicatedly magical.” Still recovering from destructive drug use in his 20s, a theme treated in his 2013 novel Taipei, Trip heralds a new epoch in Lin’s life but does not come across as preaching the New Age to everyone else.
Lin begins by introducing readers to Terence McKenna, who has posthumously become YouTube’s favorite evangelist for psychedelic drugs. He then offers a series of entertaining and insightful trip narratives (a genre popularized by websites such as Erowid), detailing his experiences with a handful of the most common — and most intense — psychedelics. Chapters are dedicated to psilocybin, DMT, salvia, and cannabis. The chapter on magic mushrooms — McKenna’s workhorse and main recommendation — features the book’s highlight, which echoes the absurdity and mania of Hunter S. Thompson’s drug stories: after consuming magic mushrooms, a sobbing Lin became convinced that he was an alien being, whereupon he “deleted parts of [his] internet presence […] and thr[ew] away [his] MacBook.”
Near the end of the volume, Lin offers a pat theory about how these chemicals summoned the scourge of America’s drug policy. They were outlawed, he argues, not because they were dangerous to users but because they threatened a political status quo based on domination. Lin posits that pre-modern humans valued cooperative models of society and worshipped female deities, but in the past few thousand years, “Yahweh-based [i.e., masculinist], anti-partnership ideas” have ushered in societies characterized by class stratification and political oppression. In an extended epilogue, narrated in the third-person, Lin relates his meeting with McKenna’s ex-wife, Kathleen, his participation in her plant drawing class, and his embrace of a feminine principle. This concluding section draws together the threads of Lin’s personal and philosophical evolution, “from yang to yin, dead to alive, Terence to Kathleen.”
Trip also reflects a development in Lin’s perspective. Whereas Taipei was “less about changing the world than […] adjusting to it,” as Audrea Lim put it in her LARB review, the author now seems to have set his sights higher. Awakened to a squandered potential, robbed of a birthright known to pre-modern humans, he does not so much prescribe or proscribe as bemoan and warn. For example, among the banes of modern “progress” is a diet composed of synthetic, pesticide-ridden, genetically modified foods, which has (Lin argues) reshaped the human face, causing smaller mouths in need of massive orthodontic overhaul. In his chapter on DMT, a drug viewed by the initiated as a mechanism for “downloading” ancient truths obscured or lost over the ages, Lin argues that “it increasingly seemed wise to trust aboriginal diets.”
Despite showcasing an impressive research bibliography, Trip is ultimately a highly personal series of detailed “trip reports.” It often feels more descriptive than analytical, driven by a compulsion to catalog and count. (As McKenna’s son, Finn, comments: “You’re really into this quantitative thing, aren’t you?”) Such an approach characterized his novel as well, as Lim’s review details: Taipei “is filled with substances of various kinds — Klonopin, coke, LSD, ecstasy, Tylenol 3, Percocet, Ambien, Adderall, Oxycodone, Xanax, ketamine and heroin.” This indexing captures and models Lin’s own writing style: you get the feeling that, in Trip, he reworked his “notes.rtf” file, which records the times, dates, and dosages on a host of psychedelic substances, into a form suitable for sharing with a wider audience.
Despite its sometimes evangelical tone, the reader finishes this research study-cum-memoir convinced that ingesting psychedelic chemicals does not by itself lead the user to new cosmological perspectives. “Psychedelics alone had not been enough to significantly affect my worldview,” Lin explains. He “required both psychedelics and McKenna” to move him away from the bleak Weltanschauung that had dominated his life heretofore. Lin quotes McKenna saying that he “would entertain any idea, but believe in nothing.” Fittingly, Lin does not cling to the specific ideas McKenna put forth but instead embraces his guru’s larger cosmic skepticism. This epistemological and ontological questioning is the book’s most refreshing aspect. In sharing his progress toward sanity and happiness, Lin extols the core message of McKenna’s anecdote about an ancient Taoist who, when asked what he had learned through his studies, replied: “Worry is preposterous. We don’t know enough to worry.”