Daniel Pinchbeck's latest book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl is one that I have been looking forward to for some time. His first book, Breaking Open the Head, ranks as one of the best that I've read over the past decade - in both style and substance. In it, Pinchbeck described his own journey from city-slicker cynic to shamanic convert, in the most exquisite prose that one could imagine. In fact, in my review of that book I felt he had reached the rare heights achieved by few writers - those of the calibre of Aldous Huxley - capable of describing the seemingly ineffable.
A few years on and Pinchbeck returns with the continuation of his personal journey, though one that seems to go slightly astray as it progresses. He begins the book by introducing his major theme, that of an apocalyptic end to our current paradigm and consciousness, as the end of the current cycle of the Mayan calendar approaches (in, of course, 2012).
The hypothesis I propose is that the completion of the great cycle and the return of Quetzalcoatl are archetypes and their underlying meaning points toward a shift in the nature of the psyche...such a radical proposition may seem absurdly far-fetched and beyond rational analysis...however, it is my view that this transition can be approached sensibly, considered in a way that does not insult our reasoning faculties.
2012 is a book embedded within the current eschatological climate of terrorism, Iraq, peak oil and global warming gone mad. Pinchbeck's observations on these topics range from the bland - for example, the usual 'sermonizing' about global warming, with little reference to the underlying debates - to the extremely insightful such as his discussion of Nietzsche’s ideas of "will to ignorance" and "will to superficiality", which perhaps provide no better description of the bizarre current global mood of ambivalence and apathy, as world leaders wage wars based on obvious lies.
The first few chapters live up to Pinchbeck's promise of not insulting our reasoning faculties, as he provides an excellent overview of the latest new paradigm thought, including Dean Radin's parapsychology research and the weird implications that the quantum world has for our view of 'reality'. Pinchbeck takes fundamentalist religion and secular liberalism to task for their lack of spirituality, and urges the reader to embrace a new spirituality in the face of these latest findings. Like Terence McKenna, he seeks an archaic revival of sorts:
It is my thesis that the rapid development of technology and the destruction of the biosphere are material by-products of a psycho-spiritual process taking place on a planetary scale. We have created this crisis to force our own accelerated transformation - on an unconscious level, we have willed it into being.
Pinchbeck then moves on to contemplating another worthwhile book, Patrick Harpur's Daimonic Reality, and its implications. At this point we reach a stumbling block, as crop circles are introduced for the first time in the book - though certainly not for the last time. Despite warnings from a well-educated friend of his (Mark Pilkington, of Strange Attractor) regarding the human provenance of these glyphs, Pinchbeck spends quite a bit of time discussing them as signs of the coming change in consciousness. His naivety seems overwhelming on this subject, as he tells of the stunning "Oliver's Castle" video showing orbs creating a crop circle - which as far as I'm aware, was proved a hoax by John Wabe more than five years ago (if not as far back as 1997).
Where Pinchbeck got it wrong with crop circles however, he must be praised for sections discussing the philosophies of Herbert Marcuse - on the failure of industrialization and our indoctrination into what is an irrational system - and most especially Jean Gebser's idea that humanity passes through different consciousness structures, each with "a profoundly different realization of time and space" and that new forms of consciousness arise as sudden mutations. The discussion of Gebser's thoughts in terms of the industrial revolution ( "What led to the invention of the machine? The breaking forth of time?") and how our modern mindset is to the constant acceleration of production and efficiency, certainly resonated with me as a major fault of our current 'consciousness'. Indeed, the ideas of Marcuse and Gebser are the fulcrum on which Pinchbeck levers his argument:
If we were to conclude, after careful consideration, that our modern world is based upon fundamentally flawed conceptions of time and mind, that on these fatal defects we had erected a flawed civilisation - like building a tower on an unsound foundation, that becomes increasingly wobbly as it rises - then logic might indicate the necessity, as well as the inevitability, of change. By closing the gap between science and myth, rationality and intuition, technology and technique, we might also understand the form that change would take. Such a shift would not be the "end of the world," but the end of a world, and the opening of the next.
As can be imagined, there are also chapters which cover the shamanic hallucinogens, from iboga to ayahuasca and DMT. Also, as would be expected, Pinchbeck ties in McKenna's Timewave Zero and the date of 2012, to the other confluences of prophetic thinking which point at this date - from the Mayan calendar to the research of John Major Jenkins. In fact, the sheer amount of topics covered at times leaves the impression of superficiality...a myriad of topics could well have been debated in far more depth, from channeling, to the crop circle phenomenon, technological singularity etc, if the book was focused on a smaller amount of topics. Personally though, I'm glad that 2012 is so sweeping in its scope, as it tries to bring all manner of fascinating topics under one roof.
Where Pinchbeck's book falls down - at least from his original argument of not insult the reasoning mind - is the downward spiral in the later chapters in which the author begins wondering whether he has been 'chosen' as one to bring this new consciousness into being. Pinchbeck quotes Edward Edinger: "The archetypes themselves cannot evolve into full consciousness without being routed through a mortal ego to bring that consciousness into realization." By this time in the book - especially upon his return to the Burning Man festival - Pinchbeck is the epitome of a psychedelic burnout, going many days without sleep or sustenance, and begins believing that he may be one of these 'routers'. He receives 'transmissions' from an entity describing itself as Quetzalcoatl, heralding a new dawn of consciousness. At this point unfortunately, my 'reasoning mind' was beginning to feel a little insulted (I think any self-respecting deity would realise, by this point, that channeling prophetic material would just add to the past few decades of similar static which the New Age scene is full of).
In his favour, Pinchbeck is capable of self-analysis, and mentions a number of times the fallibility of apocalyptic fervour (seen throughout history, not just in our times), as well as the 'messianic complex' which so often accompanies psychic burnout - he praises McKenna for being able to approach this very subject with humour. He also considers the option "that I was sliding down a slippery slope toward an unusual form of madness," and notes that apocalyptic prophesy is "a classic symptom of megalomaniac ego-inflation." However, in the end, his internal rage against the current world, combined with what could be his own psychological need for importance, seems to overwhelm these warnings, as he grasps for something that will 'make things right'.
Throughout the book, Pinchbeck struggles with his own personal demons - misogyny, his lack of family interaction (like his father), and feelings that he should be destined for greater things. Perhaps a first step should be for him to realise that these are feelings which I'm sure a large number of men his age all undergo, and they are not peculiar to him as some sort of cruel destiny. Instead, there is a certain fatalism to Pinchbeck's lamenting of his own shortcomings, that these are 'in-built' and something he should not be fighting (for example, he decides that he will no longer be bound by the 'rules' of monogamist relationships). And yet his whole quest is about humanity changing from its 'inbuilt' destructive habits. He rails against humanity, but ignores the self. Rather than exerting discipline, he feels persecuted by humanity for the idea of monogamy and decides to make his own rules. He hurts his partner, but thinks he is the persecuted one (a microcosm of humanity and the globe?) How does he expect humanity to change if he can't change himself? On one hand he denies responsibility on a personal level, but on the other wants humanity to do so. In his favour, he does confront the question at times, acknowledging the "difficult task of reconciling freedom with responsibility." However, the impatient reader might simply feel like suggesting that he get over himself.
The author has certainly been influenced by a number of 'psychic' events which have smashed his previous physicalist worldview. One incident in particular, where his partner seems to be caught up in a dream he is having, is quite unsettling. Thus, we can understand his openness to other 'psychic' events such as the channeling of a prophetic entity. However, perhaps Pinchbeck should heed the warnings of Terence McKenna, and occultists such as Dion Fortune and Aleister Crowley, to be extremely skeptical of the claims of any particular 'intelligence' or entity that makes itself known. At one point in 2012, he relates his unease at a talk by Dolores Cannon, in which he felt that entities were "testing the lulled awareness of the listeners, looking for entry points, seeking to fasten onto their psyche, like mind parasites." Perhaps he should apply this wariness to his own 'communications', considering the fragile psychological state he seemed to be in by the latter stages of the book.
In using 2012 as his date of humanity's metamorphosis, perhaps it also would have been worthwhile to investigate in more detail the claims of those who have already heralded this date. The New Age bookshelf is riddled with vapid books of little research and substance, and I was certainly suspicious of identities mentioned by Pinchbeck, such as Jose Arguelles. At least Pinchbeck also raises his own concerns throughout the book, rather than blindly proselytising on behalf of these theories. One thing there is no doubt about is Pinchbeck's ability to write - every page is a delight to read, and some of his turns of phrase are sublime. Readers of 2012 may at times see similarities in style and substance to Hancock's narrative in Fingerprints of the Gods (which he does mention in the book) - "As I circled the massive blocks, it seemed to me that Stonehenge was constructed so that the knowledge encoded in the site would survive to the present day." His constant questioning throughout the book, indicates how personal this journey is.
In some ways, Pinchbeck's journey thus far reflects the hippie movement of the 1960s. The first embrace of psychedelics and other modes of thought, followed by a downward spiral into self-aggrandizement and denial of responsibility. Some may even see in this a parable about the dangers of psychedelic and occult thought. However, though the later chapters were not the ideal finish to 2012 that I would have expected, the majority of this book is a worthwhile read not only for the subjects it covers, but for the way it is intelligently discussed and written.
In fact, a quote by Pinchbeck's hero Walter Benjamin, lamenting the loss of storytelling, sums up what there is to like about this book:
Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly...it is as if the something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences. Experience has fallen in value. And it looks as if it is continuing to fall into bottomlessness.
At its heart, it is a sentiment which sums up this book - Pinchbeck is relating his experience to us, and no matter what we think of that experience, we should certainly appreciate him sharing it with us - not to mention the elegant prose it is written in. This is where the crop circle sections, which grated against me personally - may be seen as worthwhile, as it is the recollection of his own journey...not a necessary, objective truth. As crop circle research Michael Glickman says at one point in 2012: "In a post-Newtonian culture, it is very difficult to put forth a conviction in something that you can't actually prove."