On The Edge With Daniel Pinchbeck

Ecology Existential Memes Postmodernism Psychology

Last summer I was fortunate enough to visit a remote area of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, hike into Horseshoe Canyon and view ancient rock art, pictographs and petroglyphs, in what is called The Great Gallery. Like many who visit the site I was inspired with a sense of awe and wonder. The title of a painting by Gauguin popped into my mind. It’s one of his Tahitian oils: Where Have We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

In Notes from the Edge Times, Daniel Pinchbeck is on the trail of those same questions. The son of artist Peter Pinchbeck and writer Joyce Johnson, Pinchbeck grew up in New York and became a journalist. His previous books, Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, gained him a reputation and following.

This new book is a collection of columns that have appeared mostly on his website Reality Sandwich or in the magazine Conscious Choice. His basic premise is that “... our global society is going to have to undergo a quite sudden transition from competitive and possessive behavior to cooperation and sharing if we want our species to survive, let alone thrive, into the future. Considering the ecological crisis of species extinction and climate change and the fragility of our support systems, this change has to happen in an extraordinarily compressed timeframe.”

In exploring this thesis, he touches on subjects such as shamanism, psychedelics, the Norway spiral, psychic energy, extraterrestrial intelligence and the Hopi Blue Star Kachina. While this may sound far out and edge city, the writing is actually reasonable and readable. Pinchbeck comes off more as an open-minded idealist than a true believer, admitting that he is often attracted to theories that are “unfathomably far-fetched and exuberantly entertaining.” He spends a surprising amount of time on economics—Marx, capitalism, the current financial crisis—and seems genuinely committed to finding ways to actively participate in positive economic and social change.

There’s nothing brand new here. In fact a lot of it reminds me of things I was reading in the early 1970s. Pinchbeck talks about Buckminster Fuller quite a bit, and Rudolf Steiner and Sri Aurobindo and even Timothy Leary, who may or may not be dead. Whether this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius or the 2012 end times, there is much here that is worthwhile to consider and grok.

Some parts make me think of the old Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber skit on Saturday Night Live, where Steve Martin (as Theodoric) would challenge the backward superstitious beliefs of the time with a high sounding and idealistic new scientific view, only to follow this, after a pause, with, “Nah!”

Here’s Pinchbeck (as Theodoric): “The fall of capitalism and the crisis of the biosphere could induce mass despair and misery, or they could impel the creative adaptation and conscious evolution of the human species. We could attain a new level of wisdom and build a compassionate global society, in which resources are shared equitably while we devote ourselves to protecting threatened species and repairing damaged ecosystems. Considering the lightning-like speed of global communication and new social technologies, this change could happen with extraordinary speed.”

... Nah!

In truth I don’t mind Pinchbeck’s idealism and optimism. I hope he’s right. My own view is not as pessimistic on the one hand or as optimistic on the other. I don’t think financial collapse and climate change will be quite as drastic or immediate as Pinchbeck and others prophesy, nor do I think change for the better will happen overnight if enough of us get our intentions right. In other words I think we will continue to muddle through pretty much as we always have—best of times, worst of times—on into the next century and beyond.

I will say that it has been a good and healthy thing for me to read this book, and I want my twenty-something son to read it. It reminds me of my idealistic youth and writers I read then. It made me think, for the first time in quite a while, of Gary Snyder’s great piece Four Changes, which stands up wonderfully well forty years on. Pinchbeck’s take on the current economic situation brought to mind Henry Miller’s Money and How It Gets That Way, which I reread to my amusement and edification. And his ideas about changes in human consciousness sent me to William Burroughs, who was ready to mutate and take over the reality studio before Pinchbeck was born.

Refreshing, stimulating, and a bit of a wake-up call, Notes from the Edge Times sheds valuable light on the current situation. Pinchbeck’s concise and readable prose provides an excellent clearinghouse for ideas, books and social movements from people who refuse to be overwhelmed by the increasingly complex modern world, but continue to explore alternatives and work to bring about positive change.

8 Responses to "On The Edge With Daniel Pinchbeck"

by Bill_Ectric on

I used to assume that things could only get worse and all civilizations were destined to fall like the Roman Empire, but now sometimes I think, why couldn't it turn out different? Why not imagine a "new level of wisdom" and a "compassionate global society" as described by Pinchbeck?

I needed to read this today, Dan.

by Shelley on

I didn't know there was a Gauguin painting by that name, thanks. Although I have no expertise and very little knowledge about Native Americans, I'm currently reading a book of interviews with Sherman Alexie, and he tends to cast a critical eye at studies of "shamanism." I wonder what he would think of this book.

Yo, Mister Alexie,
My girlfriend Shelley Shaver is curious about your views on shamanism and the edge. She got me curious too. And since when I went to see you at Cooper Union where you were to deliver the Arthur Miller lecture at this past year's PEN conference, but you had canceled at the very last minute and I got stuck with Hitchens and Rushdie instead (let me repeat that, Hitchens and Rushdie instead of Sherman Alexie in the hall where Abraham Lincoln once orated), I'd like to redeem my rain check for your wisdom, right here, right now. So could you blow a riff or two on that this way, please?

I hope we end up 'all watched over by machines of loving grace' (Brautigan) then blown away in some ecological and capitalist armageddon.

Still, I sort of agree of agree with the character in the B sci movies,, who when confronted with the alien invastion shouts 'w'ere all gonna die!'

According to the American Museum of Natural History, "Scientists estimate that at least 99.9 percent of all species of plants and animals that ever lived are now extinct." So how exactly does whatever species extinction may be taking place now constitute an ecological crisis? As the American Museum of Natural History also notes, "species go extinct all the time." Extinction would seem to be "nature's way."

by HalzB on

Interesting review, Dan. Hadn't known about Pinchbeck. I like the stretch from shamanism to poetry and mixing up rumors of the end times: "he touches on subjects such as shamanism, psychedelics, the Norway spiral, psychic energy, extraterrestrial intelligence and the Hopi Blue Star Kachina..." As for the end times prognosticators and pessimists, they alternately amuse and scare me but the tension between them has always been a creative catalyst, producing some great Howls. I wandered up and down Grant Avenue in SF and out in the Haight during that "between times" of Beatniks and then Hippies, inspired by the "sure destruction" vision of the world, from the Beatnik side, to "Free love is the answer" on the Hippy side. And the world is still going, still evolving--toward...well...whatever it is. You know, sometimes in the midst of this whole "Wiki-leak"-- Hmm, you suppose this is the "quantum leak" them science-type boys keep talking about? --there's a kind of hope. We see the truth that there really aren't any secrets anymore, a shaman's vision; the whole world has always known what the whole world is thinking/feeling/dreaming. We didn't really need the Internet and Wiki Leaks for that. This is something your Pinchbeck review suggests in the halo around it--that poets and shamans have always known that there aren't any secrets. Just because we're nice guys most of the time doesn't mean our secret gossip and hateful thoughts aren't killing a billion species a day and in their own way threatening all life on the planet. The Wiki Leaks just make it more obvious to us. Prognosticators and doomsayers forget that present problems are problems only because we haven't seen the solutions yet. Sort of like our grandfathers who insisted that flight was impossible. The scientific mind is a terrible thing to waste. They still can't come to terms with not being able to prove for certain that yellow black birds don't exist, or how, according to all their calculations, it still appears that it's impossible for bumblebees to fly. Our solutions are always just around the next shoulder....and that's the poet and shaman's business. Good scientists, at least the ones with broad shoulders, are fine with that. Meanwhile, like you, I don't mind "Pinchbeck’s idealism and optimism" -- your words-- because in the tension between being certain that the world is coming to an end and a fragile hope for the brighter future, between the bomb and love, there's poetry.

by Dan B. on

Thanks for all the considered and creative responses. I really like the response and reply feature of Litkicks. A review or article can become a dialogue from which we all grow and learn.

I took a look at some of the amazon.com reviews of Notes from the Edge Times. It appears I am less critical of this book than some of his "fans", who apparently wanted more of what they got from his previous books.

A couple of things I didn't mention in the review: One column in which Pinchbeck riffs on "I don't know" is quite good; and a longer piece about his father's legacy reveals more about Daniel himself than any of the others. I think he is continuing to grow as a person and writer, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.

by John on

Dear Daniel Pinchbeck,
I beg of you to stop profiting off what is good and real in the world and creating a culture out of it. You indeed have the gift of gab but are selling many lesser minds on a dishonest idea. Please leave the beauty and wisdom of the Yage to it's own devices. It does not need a spokesman. Especially one trying to package it up in some strange way and selling it as a lifestyle. The Martha Stewart of the occult does not need to exist. You inject the fantasy of the Occult and conspiracy into the realness that is the true spirit. It has no face or color. Terrence Mckenna would be ashamed. Many others feel like I do. Please leave this beauty alone and stop using it for your personal advancement. Thank you,
with love

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