BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

The sign points, the road falters ...

ghtds1.pngI really must stop believing in sub-titles … I've had quite a run of books that purported (via the sub-title) to be about one thing, but never quite got there, or went in some completely different direction. On one hand, I'm kind of pissed off when this happens … having devoted a chunk of time to actually read the book, in expectation that it was going to be going somewhere it really wasn't … but I guess it's “my fault” for taking the sub-title at its word(s).

I'm afraid that Graham Hancock's The Divine Spark: A Graham Hancock Reader: Psychedelics, Consciousness, and the Birth of Civilization ends up on that list. While there is LOTS about Psychedelics, and a bunch about Consciousness, the “tease” that got me interested in this in the first place was the “Birth of Civilization” part, which, while referenced, certainly does not play a significant part in the book.

Now, I've been a big fan of Graham Hancock for a long while, and have, fairly recently, been following him on Facebook, where I saw him discussing the book, and excerpting bits from his parts of it there. I reached out to Disinformation Books (which I was surprised to find is now part of Red Wheel / Weiser) for a review copy, which they eventually provided. The first thing to note about The Divine Spark is that Hancock is primarily the editor of a collection of 26 papers dealing with (generally speaking) hallucinogens, their history, their sources, their chemistry, their use, etc. … only 3 of which are Hancock's. The rest are a smattering of MDs, PhDs, familiar names like the solid Robert Schoch and the off-the-wall Russell Brand, plus a motley crew of drug enthusiasts and reality theorists … with item lengths ranging from a very brief 3 pages, to nearly 30.

As long-time readers of my reviews will no doubt recall, I have a certain amount of experience in this sphere, having studied shamanism back in the 80's (with much of the entheogenic enhancements discussed herein in trips to Peru and elsewhere), as well as having the experiential resources of a near-classic “misspent youth”. So, when I found the book a bit over-the-top in enthusiasm for psychedelics, it makes me wonder how it would be received by somebody whose interface with mind-altering substances was more in the tequila zone. Admittedly, in the past several decades I've been “clean & sober” and a non-participant in any chemical enhancements (I was very rah-rah when I read Hancock's story – included in this collection – about giving up his long-time intensive daily Cannabis use … having had a couple of friends who completely ruined their lives with their dedication to that particular plant, at the expense of everything else … and quite disappointed in his recent posts of having started smoking again, thanks to Colorado's new marijuana laws).

The book is broken up into five sections: On Consciousness, Expanding the Mind, Serious Research, Experiencing Psychedelics, and Supernatural. Individual pieces cover personal experiences with LSD, MDMA, Ayahuasca, even home-cooked DMT (who knew?), detailed notes from assorted scientific and quasi-scientific experiments dealing with psychedelics, to discussions of things as variable as the Casimir Effect (a method of extracting “free energy” from vacuum oscillations), stars being conscious (“Perhaps the reason galaxies don't fall apart is because they are not dumb balls of gas reacting to nothing more than the laws of physics, but are instead joined-up communities of intelligent dynamic beings.”), the existence of Richard Dawkins as a proof of the existence of God (OK, so this is Russell Brand's blithering). And, there's lots of reports of things experienced when in altered states, especially working with Ayahuasca in assorted settings.

Again, I kept waiting to get to that “Birth of Civilization” stuff, and not finding much on the subject. There is work referenced here, in a couple of places, by a writer that I had not previously encountered, by the name of Michael Winkelman, who appears to be a researcher who only publishes into the text book channel … meaning his books (several of which sound fascinating) are painfully expensive, with one appearing to have a list price of $132.00 (for just a 336-page hardcover), whose Kindle price is just shy of a hundred bucks! His work is touched on in at least a couple of these pieces and, again, seems to be the source of the concept that entheogens are what dragged early man up towards “Civilization”:
Winkelman uses the concept of psychointegrator plants to refer to experiential, phenomenological, or psychological aspects of their physiological effects. He suggests that the resulting mentation (how you think) and emotion (how you feel) may produce a holistic state of psychological integration and emotional growth. … Psychointegrator plants are traditionally used across cultures in a religious, spiritual, and often therapeutic context and may enhance some of the innate capacities of consciousness, integrating various forms of information.
Needless to say, I was disappointed that these theories where not better represented in the text, as the idea that what we are as modern humans represents a dynamic interface between basic hominid “meatware”, and the unique (albeit complementary) chemistry of this group of plants. If Winkelman's books were available in “mass market” editions (rather than the type of books you have to rent!), I'd have had an order in for 2 or 3 of them already.

Obviously, despite my disappointment in this (highlighted in the sub-title) subject not being covered more than in passing, there is quite a lot of very interesting material in The Divine Spark … although, again, I wonder how well this would come across to folks who haven't been exposed to these sorts of experiences. It will no doubt be extremely popular with fans of hallucinogens, as the book reads, over-all, as quite “druggy”.

One piece really appealed to me as a libertarian … a brief paper by Hancock called “The Consciousness Revolution” … where the author looks at models of consciousness and how they, through religion and politics, become locked into particular dogmatic and ideological views.:
I refer here to the so-called “war on drugs” which is really better understood as a war on consciousness and which maintains, supposedly in the interests of society, that we as adults do not have the right or maturity to make sovereign decisions about our own consciousness and about the states of consciousness we wish to explore and embrace. This extraordinary imposition on adult cognitive liberty is justified by the idea that our brain activity, disturbed by drugs, will adversely impact our behavior toward others. Yet anyone who pauses to think seriously for even a moment must realize that we already have adequate laws that govern adverse behavior toward others and that the real purpose of the “war on drugs” must therefore be to bear down on consciousness itself.
I do wish I was able to be more enthusiastic about The Divine Spark, as much of it is fascinating, but I kept getting that “designated driver” vibe reading it … like hanging out with one's wasted friends who are having a great time, and you're not. This has just been out for a month or so, and should be easy to find … the on-line guys have it (of course), and are currently knocking off about 20% from the cover price (heck, you could get it for 1/3rd of the price of the cheapest Winkelman book).

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Tags: book review
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