Tao Lin’s 2018 nonfiction book, Trip, introduced me to the thoughts of psychedelic proponent Terence McKenna and the idea of “dominator vs. partnership” societies, first posited by Riane Eisler in her 1987 book, The Chalice and The Blade.
Leave Society is Tao Lin’s latest novel, a piece of autofiction, which piggybacks on many of the ideas found in Trip and tells the story, in poignant and beautiful prose, of a son’s relationship with his parents, with pain, and with recovery. Lin and I spoke via email.
SCOTT BURTON: Where does the title of your book Leave Society come from?
TAO LIN: It comes from two places. In 2012, I tweeted, “Urge to leave society upon losing cards/keys,” after I lost my debit card, driver’s license, and apartment keys. Then, in 2013, I ingested psilocybin mushrooms alone in my apartment at night, and the next day I discerned the main message of my trip to be to “leave society.” Since then, I’ve been researching what that means. What exists besides society? What do I want to leave exactly?
The answer — which I’ve gleaned over the past seven years by, among other means, reading hundreds of nonfiction books, which I’ve listed here — is basically that I want to leave dominator society, both physically and mentally, so that I can get closer to nature and the mystery and so that I can better embody “the partnership model,” a term coined by Riane Eisler.
The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler and her descriptions of “dominator” versus “partnership” models of social analysis are referenced throughout Leave Society. How has this book and its thesis influenced your worldview?
In The Chalice and the Blade, Eisler studied all of human history, including prehistory, and concluded that we exemplified the partnership model until only around 6,500 years ago, when we began to overexpress the dominator model. The partnership model is characterized by equality — beginning with the most fundamental difference in the species, between the two sexes — whereas in the dominator model, one sex is ranked above the other in a bias that then infects all other relationships.
Eisler’s work has changed my worldview because I used to be unsure if humans have always been as dysfunctional and irrational and sexist as we are now — male-dominated, addicted to war, poisoning ourselves, distrusting nature, destroying the planet. Now I see that the last 6,500 years has been an aberration — a kind of nightmare that we seem to be gradually, if inconsistently, waking from to return to a former harmony.
It’s not just Eisler’s work, but the work of Marija Gimbutas, Merlin Stone, James Mellaart, and others, like Terence McKenna, that has led me to this new, non-bleak worldview.
In your last nonfiction book, Trip, and in Leave Society, you describe psychedelics and the work of Terence McKenna as having become very influential in your life. How so?
I used to be addicted to Xanax, Adderall, and other synthetic, corporation-made drugs that come in the form of pills and tablets containing eight-to-15 toxic ingredients. Around when I reached a bottom with that addiction, I encountered Terence McKenna, who had an optimistic worldview that I found compelling. He felt, based on research, that all the chaos happening now was necessary as a prelude to a species-level, dimensional transformation — somewhat like how a birth is chaotic and painful but leads to a baby.
McKenna promoted natural drugs, especially cannabis and psilocybin, and I still really liked using drugs, so I switched from pharmaceutical drugs to cannabis and psychedelics. And McKenna heavily promotes nature, which had been missing in my previous worldview. So I got really interested in nature. Also, it was from McKenna that I learned of Riane Eisler and the partnership model. They did a five-hour seminar together in 1988 that I recommend.
Tell me about your recovery.
At first, I viewed myself as recovering from just pharmaceutical drugs. Years of benzodiazepines and amphetamines had damaged my brain and other organs, as well as my coping and relationship skills. But then, as I learned more about natural health and dominator society, I started to view myself as recovering from almost everything — my public education, my cultural consumption, pornography, the United States, corporations and their products and ads, pesticides and radioactive atoms and electromagnetic radiation and other environmental toxins, etc.
You describe using writing as a tool in your recovery. Can you speak to this?
Writing helps my recovery in many ways. By writing notes and occasionally rereading them, I expand my time context, which helps me stay calm and undiscouraged and gives me perspective. Writing and editing sentences and paragraphs about books that I’ve read — and embedding these sentences and paragraphs into my fiction and nonfiction books — helps me understand and remember and integrate and deepen what I’ve learned. Writing and reading chronological narratives of my own life helps me stay focused on and interested in my long-term process of changing my mind and life.
What is the mystery?
The mystery, which is obscured and easily forgettable in modern dominator society, is everything besides culture and technology. It’s electrons, plants, geckos, fish, planets, and minds. Its two known forms, as I’ve discerned it, are nature and the imagination. The mystery is mysterious because, unlike cars and ads and buildings and iPhones and magazines, no one knows who made it, how it was made, or what it’s for.
You describe the current phase of human existence as “history.” What do you mean by this?
History, as I use the term in my book, is the period of time beginning with permanent settlements and ending with a transformation into the higher dimension of the imagination. I got this definition from Terence McKenna. Before history, humans lived in a cyclical trance, like ants and deer and raccoons still do, living and dying in slight variations for millions of years.
Once history begins, the rate of change begins to accelerate. By now, each generation experiences something very different than the previous generation. When I was a kid, there was no internet or smartphones, for example.
It’s unknown when permanent settlements began for humans. Mainstream researchers think that people probably began to settle into towns around 12,000 years ago with the emergence of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, but there is evidence that that emergence was actually a reemergence, and that advanced civilizations existed before 12,000 years ago.
So, history seems to be a frequently interrupted thing, as I argue in Leave Society. Civilizations emerge and try to reach the end of time, try to enter the imagination, but are destroyed by war or natural disasters, like comet impacts or pole shifts. Then it begins again.
What is YG or YGing?
It means fainting, basically. I started having fainting spells in 2014. I called them “YGs” because they happened to me most often during yoga, and they didn’t feel exactly like fainting. I wouldn’t totally lose consciousness. Instead, I would feel like I was leaving concrete reality to some other place, as if I’d smoked DMT. It still happens sometimes when I hold my breath.
Your relationship with your parents is a key element of Leave Society. Tell me what this has been like for you and how it might have aided in your recovery.
My parents don’t use recreational drugs (except tea), and so they were a good influence on me when I wanted to stop using pharmaceutical drugs. They became my friends when I distanced myself from my previous friends who were still deep into drugs and bleak worldviews. They provided a wholesome, loving place for me to live for one quarter of the year, in Taiwan, away from drugs and New York City, as I write in Leave Society. My mom promotes and embodies many partnership qualities, like compassion, patience, love, understanding, and forgiveness, and so that was also a good influence.
Tell me about what you have learned in your reading on goddess worship.
Humans began to carve female figurines at least 40,000 years ago. No male figurines have been found from the period of 40,000 to 12,000 years ago, only female and genderless figurines. After agriculture developed, people continued to make female figurines, ranging from hand-sized to three times life-sized, at Jericho, Çatalhöyük, Hongshan, and other settlements.
From this and other evidence, archaeologist Marija Gimbutas and others have recognized that humans used to worship nature in the form of a female deity, which Gimbutas called the Goddess. Nature was viewed as female because, among other reasons, only women give birth and nurture new life from their body.
The Goddess religion seemed to be the main and uncontested religion of human beings until around 6,500 years ago, when dominator-oriented, male-deity-worshipping people began to attack the original religion and its practitioners. The Goddess religion was assimilated into the religions of Ancient Egypt and Sumer, where there are a mix of male and female deities. The assimilation continued into Greek and Roman times.
According to Merlin Stone, the author of When God Was a Woman, Goddess worship continued as the popular religion of the people until around the first century, when it was fully suppressed by Christians and other Yahweh-worshipping religions who called Goddess worshippers “pagans.”
Today, the word Goddess seems weird to most people. It’s been replaced with the word God. But many people still intuitively view Mother Nature as female.
What are microfireflies?
Microfireflies are a thing I noticed in 2016. I describe Li, the character in my novel that is based on me, seeing them in this way, which is how I saw them too:
Supine in Washington Square Park one day, he saw flitting, ephemeral, glowing dots that seemed not in the air, the sky, his mind, or his eyes. They weren’t the wormy question-mark shapes he suspected were microbes, or the tadpole-like shadows, drifting past in tugs of movement belying their inter-eyeball nearness; the semi-translucent dots seemed to be in every area of empty space but were only visible against sky. They appeared, squiggled rapidly, and vanished, like densely packed fireflies in fast-forward.
Li could see two to four microfireflies, as he termed them, into their world, as if looking into murky water. He saw them focusing five feet above himself, on a cloud, and on nothing. Blowing air at them and waving his hand through them didn’t seem to affect them. He searched “glowing dots in air” and other phrases online but found nothing. He observed them daily in the park.
Later in the novel, Li tells his girlfriend Kay about microfireflies, and she gives them another name — dustwinkling. Of the 20 or so people who’ve read my novel so far, only one person has mentioned that they’ve also seen microfireflies: Sam Pink. He told me he started seeing them as a kid and has only ever met one other person (in high school) who saw them.
Some time has passed since you finished writing this book. Have you left society yet?
It’s not an either-or activity, in my view. The way the word society is used in my book, it means dominator society, and so when I’m reading a nonfiction book about ancient partnership societies, I’m leaving society. When I’m viewing a tree instead of an advertisement, I’m leaving society. When I’m meditating instead of ruminating on negative thoughts, I’m leaving society. When I’m asleep and dreaming, I’m leaving society. When I’m working on my garden or playing with my cats, I’m leaving society. When I’m working on my immune system through natural means, I’m leaving society. When I’m making art that is informed by the partnership model, I’m leaving society. When I’m being kind or patient or compassionate or tolerant or calm or rational, I’m leaving society.
Scott Burton is a literary interviewer based in San Diego.