Observing the Art Appear From Nowhere: Tao Lin's Addiction to Terence McKenna

May 11 2016

Observing the Art Appear From Nowhere: Tao Lin’s Addiction to Terence McKenna

May 11th, 2016

Alt-lit icon Tao Lin is working on a new book, his first nonfiction, which he estimates will come out in 2017. It’s called Beyond Existentialism, and it’s about Terence McKenna (1946—2000), a philosopher and advocate of psychedelics dubbed the “Timothy Leary of the 90s.”

McKenna reportedly smoked cannabis every day of his adult life (except for a few months when he quit because his psychotherapist wouldn’t stop bothering him about it, and when he couldn’t get it due to travel). McKenna was also was a proponent of DMT, an illegal psychedelic which has been referred to as the “death drug,” because, in addition to being found in plants, it has been speculated to be released in large quantities by the pineal gland at the moment of death. People who take it recreationally have claimed to have experienced what dying is like.

Lin writes fiction, poetry and essays, draws pictures and runs the publishing house/website Muumuu House, and the film company MDMA Films. In addition to Beyond Existentialism, Lin has a new novel in development. The New York Times has proclaimed that “If you’re bookish and you don’t know the name Tao Lin, you’re probably over 30” and that his writing has “distant echoes of early Hemingway, as filtered through Twitter and Klonopin.” He’s also been the subject of legal controversy. In 2009 he published an autobiographical novella called Shoplifting from American Apparel and said: “Shoplifting can be justified morally. I was shoplifting from publicly traded companies and spending the money I gained at independent stores that were socially conscious, such as organic vegan restaurants.” In 2014, he faced allegations of statutory rape from his ex, poet E.R. Kennedy, who subsequently tweeted that they did not want the matter further discussed in public.

And he’s known for writing about drugs, particularly in his last novel, Taipei, and his most recent book, Selected Tweets (a selection of tweets by him and Mira Gonzalez). In Taipei, characters use drugs including “Ambien, Seroquel, LSD, Adderall, Oxycodone, cocaine, Flexeril, Percocet, psilocybin mushrooms, and codeine.” He tweets about drug use, often. For example:


He recently gave a “7-10 minute presentation” titled “Specific Effects of Psychedelic Drugs On Me” in Brooklyn, in which he described some of his experiences with psilocybin mushrooms, DMT, salvia and ingested cannabis.

His characters frequently talk about drugs and being high; simultaneously, reading his writing can be a drug-like experience in itself. Lin breaks down actions we take for granted—like our heart beating—into concrete gestures that can seem bizarre in isolation; thinking about life as a series of these actions, getting lost in the strangeness of every little gesture or phrase, uncomfortably mimics, for me, the hyper-self-consciousness of being high.

From Taipei:  

“…he’d think of how his heart, unlike him, was safely contained, away from the world, behind bone and inside skin, held by muscles and arteries in its place, carefully off-center, as if to artfully assert itself as source and creator, having grown the chest to hide in and to muffle and absorb—and, later, after innovating the brain and face and limbs, to convert into productive behavior—its uncontrollable, indefensible, unexplainable, embarrassing squeezing of itself.”

Lin also has the tendency to place commonplace words or phrases in quotes. This device evokes that feeling when you’re high of words “losing their meaning,” or of “normal” words seeming strange or funny. For example, from Taipei:

“the most intimate Paul had been with another girl was a ten-minute conversation, at an ‘away’ high school football game, with another percussionist.”

Lin’s writing at times resembles the writing of McKenna himself, who used the term “small mouth noises” to refer to human speech.

Lin is now delving even further into the world of drugs, both in his personal experiences with psychedelics and in his writing about Terence McKenna. The book partly evolved out of a series of essays he wrote for Vice, in which he interviewed McKenna’s son and daughter, created a chronological list of McKenna-related books, ideas and people, and generally immersed himself in McKenna’s world.

He tells The Influence about this McKenna mania, the CIA keeping tabs on him, and the idea that we are “made of drugs.”

What led you to write nonfiction?

I’ve always written nonfiction, but not an entire book yet until now. Some reasons I’m writing nonfiction: I’ve been reading more nonfiction, I’ve been reading less fiction, I want to directly convey information about the world that I’ve learned so I and other people can have discussions in the future about this information within a context of nonfiction interconnected with other nonfiction.

Since February 2014, you have been making very detailed and often beautiful, some might call them psychedelic, mandalas.



Thank you for noticing my mandalas.

Mandalas have been used by various traditions as a tool for spiritual guidance or meditation, and they’re also sometimes used as “art-therapy” tools. Do you find them therapeutic, healing, spiritual? 

Of the words you used, I’ve thought about drawing in terms of meditation and therapy. I like to draw in the same piece with varying amounts of consciousness, for example I like to study carefully and then decide where to draw something next, but I also like to deliberately refrain from considering what I’m doing and draw quickly, ahead of my awareness, so that it’s like I’m observing the art appear from nowhere, my hand moving without being told how to move.

The “deliberately refrain from considering what I’m doing” end of this spectrum is like meditation to me, I think of it as a kind of meditation. And, having this spectrum, and moving around on it, is a kind of therapy in my view—I’m healing and testing and practicing my ability to make art, when I want to, uninhibitedly.

You first learned of Terence McKenna through a recording on Youtube where he talked about DMT, a psychedelic drug that is illegal even though it’s found naturally in the human body.

Since then, to an outsider, you seem to have gotten somewhat addicted to Terence McKenna. What do you make of your fascination with him? 

This is all in my next book, and I’m still working on the answers. Good question, thank you. You can pretend when you read the answers in my book that I’m answering your interview questions in print at a delay. I like the idea of an outsider noticing that I have gotten somewhat addicted to Terence McKenna.

Do you ever get nervous—particularly as an Asian American in a climate that targets people of color—about being targeted by law enforcement for writing openly about drug use?

I don’t remember ever being targeted by police because of my appearance. From ages 0-18 I rarely encountered police. I grew up in suburban Central Florida. From ages 18-32 I’ve lived mostly in NYC, and I’ve probably spoken to police around five times, asking them directions (besides the times I’ve been arrested for shoplifting and putting a sticker on a building—times I’ve been, in my view, treated fairly and professionally and as a human).

I haven’t felt nervous about being targeted by law enforcement, no. Mostly because I don’t think they read interviews and novels and tweets to find people to arrest. I’ve thought about the CIA probably targeting me, or having someone “keep tabs” on me, but I like that. I like imagining people I meet are CIA agents and that there could be someone assigned to keep track of everything I do or to try to infiltrate my world. I want to write more about the CIA in the future.

McKenna said that when he took certain psychedelics he entered a world of “’self-transforming machine elves’—also called ‘fractal elves,’ ‘self-dribbling jeweled basketballs,’ or ‘little self-transforming tykes’—that spoke English and a kind of visible language while jumping into and out of his body, ‘running around chirping and singing.’” I loved this and thought it was extremely “creative.” What’s the relationship between your drug use and your creativity? 

I like how specific and weird and zany McKenna’s descriptions of his DMT experiences are. I only used caffeine for my first six books. For Taipei and Selected Tweets, I was under the influence of caffeine plus myriad other drugs while writing them. I’ve also written and edited (editing seems creative to me because I’m often trying to create preferable substitutions to what I’ve previously created) and drawn and done other creative things while sober. Terence McKenna attributed some of his ideas to a voice he called “the mushroom” that he dialogued with while on psilocybin. Dennis McKenna, Terence’s brother, observed that we are made of drugs which is why drugs work. I encourage people to read this kind of scattered, disconnected answer as a prose poem you might find in a poetry book, taking up one page.

graph tao
A time-line of Tao’s drug history, published on his Twitter.

Besides McKenna, any books or art recommendations about anything drug-related?

The Yage Letters (1963) is a 66-page book with 2 accounts of ayahuasca by William S. Burroughs and 2 accounts by Allen Ginsberg.

Are there any things about which you disagree with McKenna?

There are not, because with McKenna, for me at least, it’s more like a collaboration or a discussion. He stressed he didn’t believe any of his models or ideas. McKenna: “I like the word models. What we’re trying to do is build models. By saying the word ‘models’, we make it very clear that this is not ‘Truth’, and that there will be a better model, and we’ll swap the old for the new.”

Can you tell me a little about your upcoming novel Leave Society? Do you know when the novel and your upcoming nonfiction book, Beyond Existentialism, will come out?

It’s my fourth novel. I’m working on it after I finish Beyond Existentialism which I’m working on now. I estimate they could come out in 2017 and 2018. Each of my novels have been longer than the previous, so maybe this one will be longer than Taipei, which was ~70,000 words. Richard Yates was ~50,000, Eeeee Eee Eeee ~30,000. Gradually longer books until I’m writing 800-page books, maybe I’ll do that. I don’t want to talk about the content yet so early but thank you for asking about it.

Sarah Beller is an associate editor of The Influence. You can follow her on Twitter: @JulesBesch.

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  • MRockatansky

    “(T)o an outsider, you seem to have gotten somewhat addicted to Terence McKenna. What do you make of your fascination with him?”

    The “somewhat addicted” nature of intrigue w/ the charismatic ‘hero’ of the psychedelic movement’s 1990s, its popular re-insurgency stage – touches a delicate nerve. Observing psychedelia’s current milieu, in its trajectory as devolved since its founding era – McKenna mainly seems to have fostered an excessively zealous, unsettling preoccupation – fanatic-like in many ways. The movement in his name, whose ball Mr Lin would advance – wraps itself in the psychedelic cause, staking many claims upon it in McKenna’s name, with the greatest of ease.

    In the wake of damaging 1960s fiascoes from Leary at Harvard to Manson, helter skleter – the subject of tripping was abandoned, in effect – left up for grabs. McKenna saw his opportunity thus, to bid for the Leary crown as heir apparent – and acclaimed official spokesman of, by and for ruling subcultural ‘authority.’

    Since his untimely April 2000 demise, the preoccupation McKenna fostered with his name and claim to fame seems to have only deepened – as it hardens and narrows apace – like any cult of personality.

    For a telling study in the mark McKenna left upon those drawn in to his spellcasting, one need look no further than his most infamous caper, the End Of History he forecast for Dec 21, 2012.

    As in Old Time religion’s high stakes for the soul in eternity, fated either for heaven or hell – so McKenna caught his audience between crosshairs of ultimate fear or hope – that Y2K12 would prove to be the End or Beginning. Would his ‘eschaton’ be doomsday or the glorious advent of a new golden age? Quite a psychodrama. As he worded it in the Epilogue of his “True Hallucinations” (1993):

    “My fear is, if these ideas are less than true, our world is destined for a very final and ordinary death. For reason has grown too feeble to save us from the demons we have set loose. My hope is that I may bear witness to the fact there is a great mystery … promising to realize itself and to give real meaning to what is otherwise only the confusion of our lives and our collective past.”

    As older ‘gospel’ offers a ‘carrot and stick’ choice – two ways to get caught up, fear of hell and heavenly hope – McKenna’s ‘new wine in old skin’ seems to have served as ideal bait for fishing shallow subcultural waters of the psychedelic peasantry – at the 20th century’s fin de siecle. Those who swallowed it most deeply – are permanently ‘in the web’ he spun. And the effects demonstrated, resemble psychological straight-jacketing – a loss, sacrifice or abandon of significant thought and thinking capability, as a matter of ready, willing or able – to face dismal reality.

    Those of us not ‘in the web’ can not only notice, but even acknowledge – no, 2012 didn’t bring some ‘eschaton’ neither of glory nor doom. In spite of whatever bets placed by those eagerly drawn in to McKenna’s Psychedelic Casino games – neither history nor time came to a crashing halt.

    But in the wake of such hit-and-run impact – reality itself ends up more than some can acknowledge. One might think, by sounds from the ‘screaming abyss’ (in McKennese) – McKenna’s Y2K12 prophecy all came true just like he said. Or is just about to, still and always. Its not due to low IQ or lack of education among the peasantry. Its a matter of psychological damage to cognition, perception effectively disenabled – brainwash, in colloquial vocab.

    Mr Lin’s hardly the only ‘public profile’ case file, in the psychological retreat or refuge taken in that mighty fortress, our bard. Consider the case of an author notable as D. Rushkoff, excitely chirping in the immediate wake of the Y2K12 impact, to “Other” brother DMac:

    “As I experienced what you went through, you were outside time for 30 days! … I feel like it was a prelude to the reality in which we’re all living now, although maybe a bit less obviously – not the end of times but THE End OF Time – I THINK WE’RE NOW LIVING IN A POST-TEMPORAL, POST-HISTORIC REALITY … !” http://www.reddit.com/r/terencemckenna/comments/4jfwfi/great_podcast_one_of_todays_brightest_minds/

    Some who ‘fell for it’ can, unlike poor Rushkoff – at least clue in to the obvious, that Dec 21 2012 was no eschaton (unless that’s a synonym for “dud” – but only by yet-more-frenzied attempts to ‘validate’ the prophecy (the ‘theory’) by pushing a reset button – to jigger up new prophetic dates – exalting the prophet as “only human” by having erred – but only in micro-detail, by having merely ‘miscalculated’ the date of his Eschaton – still going like the Energizer Bunny. And we still don’t have long to wait its coming its coming – almost here:

    http://www.fractal-timewave.com/articles/zerodate_reconsidered.html – “one can now ask if there is any reason to support a more plausible choice of a zero date. The answer is that, yes … our revised zero date must be in the future, that leaves just one candidate: July 8, 2018 … this zero date is now built in to the online timewave calculator on this site.”

    (Likewise: “… the non-arrival of the Eschaton on Dec 21, 2012 does NOT imply Terence’s statements about it can now be dismissed. The most likely conclusion one can draw is simply that he was incorrect in his estimate of the DATE of its arrival. See “The Zero Date Reconsidered” – http://dreamflesh.com/blog/2013/02/terence-mckennas-strange-duplicity/ )

    If only concern for those who’ve ‘taken the bait’ and been ‘reeled in’ – permanently – stood alone or were the end of it – or even the worst. Alas. Psychology of religion, founded over a century ago, is based in clear understanding that visionary experiences of various kinds including but limited to McKenna’s preferred kind – have potential for better and for worse alike, Wm James noted, such states can lend to ‘healthy mindedness’ or ‘the sick soul.’

    And as studied decades later by Festinger WHEN PROPHECY FAILS (his 1956 book) the fallout of shattered prophecy (or ‘theory’ if one must) is nothing of comfort or joy. Those ‘stuck to it’ like flypaper are unable to extricate themselves, once psychologically ensnared in the web. Left dangling on its line, bereft to perceive the obvious or acknowledge the self-evident. That time didn’t end for example – or isn’t about to either – is no longer in reach mentally for those caught in such rip tides. Those left in that lurch all dressed up with nowhere to go after being stood up by such a date with ultimate fate – the only thing left is digging deeper into its darkness – like ‘addiction’ (word used) it only gets worse.

    Festinger described the intensified frenzy of followers, and a larger horizon of issue than their individual state. Struck down by hit-and-run of failed prophecy, the big one that came and went without event – not only are they unable to regain lost coordinates; followers are driven into yet more frantic efforts to seek solace in numbers.

    What follows the fall of such a Humpty Dumpty so high up on its wall – is nothing that can just be put back together again. What’s left are shattered fragments mentally, and thus a pursuit on the part of ‘addicted’ followers (victims in a sense), more grimly determined than ever before – to further the ‘addiction’ (or obsession, mania, fanaticism) – the better to spread it furthur, furthur all the time.

    Baiting others to ‘join’ the cause, more fishers of men needed all the time – becomes more important than ever by such devious dynamics – by seeking ‘comfort in numbers’ as a matter of deepening desperation in a sociopathological tailspin to relieve the traumatic distress as thus inflicted.

    If mere inability to get off the line were the worst impact – the outlook would be only so troubling, no more. But the victimized are conscripted into further missionary service to go forth and cast the lines anew, freshly baited – more grimly intent than ever before, on ‘sharing’ the ‘gospel.’

    Never are more followers more needed apparently than after the fall – to relieve distress of those lying on the pavement, at the crash site beneath the Humpty Dumpty wall – shattered pieces of the prophecy, whether masquerading as ‘theory’ or not:


    Not only are those who take the fall never put back together again – a need for others on principle that ‘misery loves company’ – reaches pathological depths that only darken as they deepen – an unhealthy need for others to likewise become ‘reeled in’ as catches.

    Mr Lin’s book will no doubt extol the mckennical virtues of such glorious exposition and messages his inspiration bequeathed to posterity. For those who’ve taken that kind of bait – little choice remains, psychologically. For lo, it shall be with us always. That’s simply how this type stuff works – what it does. Its modus op boils down to thought programming – of which it presents an excellent real life case file for the type fruit it bears, mind control in our midst. McKenna’s legacy proves basic stuff that cults and cultism have always relied upon – like ‘the kindness of strangers.’

    Alas profound but nuanced hazards like psychological traps however baited – can be so inconspicuous. Any signs they give can likewise appear as small as iceberg tips – or as tempting as any juicy bait dangled before hungry fish. As the Robot on LOST IN SPACE put it: ‘Danger, Will Robinson.’