Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Self-Promotional Prophet: Daniel Pinchbeck’s 2012

“If a person is open to a new world view, it can often mean that he is not firmly rooted in the reality of the old world view; as a lunatic or alienated artist, his own neurotic traits can become magnified as they tremble with the new energy pouring in from the universal source.” (William Irwin Thompson, quoted by Pinchbeck, in 2012)

While reading Daniel Pinchbeck’s 2012: The Year of the Mayan Prophecy (formerly The Return of Quetzalcoatl, change presumably instigated by the publishers), I became so enthusiastic that I began to write a review halfway through it. Then something odd happened. Around page 300 (with part six), the book began to go horribly wrong, and by the time I was finished, I had an entirely different take on it. For the first 200 pages or so, I didn’t want the book to end. For the last hundred pages, I couldn’t wait to be done with it. To say that Pinchbeck overstays his welcome would be a grotesque understatement. By the end of the book, he has more or less destroyed whatever good will we had for him, and I wound up holding my head in my hands, muttering to myself: “Another good mind bites the dust.”

Since my first notes are an accurate description of my response to the book up to that point, however, I’ll include them here before moving onto my final judgment. These initial impressions amount to a review of the first 250 pages of 2012.

Pinchbeck’s book is a tour-de-force; an astonishing achievement that manages to blend worldly (and world-weary) skepticism with a wide-eyed sense of wonder. What the author attempts—and by and large achieves—is to build a bridge between the rational/sensationalist viewpoint of mainstream media (Pinchbeck’s background is as a New York journalist and editor), and the cutting edge of shamanic vision, an area which the mainstream generally relegates to the “lunatic fringe.” Yet at no point does Pinchbeck resort to dumbing down or simplification. 2012 is certainly not a book for everyone, but it has a very wide reach, and potentially it could connect to even the most skeptical of readers—if not to persuade, then at least to challenge. Pinchbeck is a futurologist, attempting to describe concepts that have yet to take hold of the consensus, being basically incompatible with it, by using terms apprehensible to our current worldview. This is no easy task, yet Pinchbeck manages it without coming off as either a raving lunatic or prophet of doom.[1]

For a work as chock-a-block with ideas as this (perhaps only 20% of which are original to Pinchbeck), the author stays remarkably on track, and there’s very little here that struck me as being off-the-mark.[2] Yet apparently the book was not well-received (Rolling Stone described it as being “widely panned”). Taking a hostile, even derisive stance to Pinchbeck’s brand of apocalypticism, the mainstream media latched particularly onto his avocation of the psychedelic experience, and his claim to being the chosen prophet of Quetzalcoatl. (It has to be said that Pinchbeck walked right into that one.[3]) Yet 2012 is in no way spurious or outlandish, nor is it poorly argued, researched, or written. It’s an exemplary work of apocalyptic scholasticism, and the only way to dismiss it is to argue that Pinchbeck is just another drug-damaged lunatic with delusions of grandeur. To this extent, in keeping with tradition, the more virulently the world rejects the message, the more it—inadvertently—confirms the truth of it. Pinchbeck has volunteered for the most thankless role there is, and he ought not to trouble himself too much about such a chilly reception. His reward is not of this world anyway.

That said, there are times when Pinchbeck doesn’t seem quite equal to his task. Brilliant as 2012 is, it lacks a unifying poetic vision. It is more of a compendium, an overview of ideas, than a unique creative work, and although Pinchbeck writes extremely well, he doesn’t appear to have an especially strong sensibility. Most of his insights come from the head and not the heart. In an odd way, he seems a little too worldly, and perhaps this is what has led to his coming up against the world in such a fashion. Apparently, despite all his fevered convictions, part of Pinchbeck still wants to curry the world’s favor. Eager to receive credit for being the messenger, he’s busy building bridges to a world he knows, in his heart of hearts, won’t be around much longer. He might be better off burning them instead.

These were my first impressions. The last quarter of 2012, however, is such a fatal error of judgment on the part of the author that the book winds up as a cautionary tale: a warning about what happens when the messenger gets consumed by self-importance and decides to “improve on” the message, thereby destroying it in the process. Pinchbeck’s ideas on masculine-feminine energies, the Kali Yuga, and the unnatural restrictions of monogamy are not actually bad, nor are they poorly expressed. But they belong in another work, as does (considerably more so) his distinctly uncomfortable private accounts of marital break-up and unrequited sexual desire. For the previous 300 pages (or at least 250, up to the end of part 4; part 5 is a somewhat superfluous but not uninteresting retread of crop circles in Glastonbury), Pinchbeck presented an almost unassailable argument for the end of consensus reality. After such a relentless but inspired barrage of information, it’s extremely difficult to sustain interest in such relatively trivial questions: our attention is all used up. As a result, all the air begins to leak out of 2012, as it slowly sinks into the quagmire of Pinchbeck’s personal obsessions and neuroses.

Pinchbeck not only dissipates our good will towards him, he rapidly erodes his credibility. If he had kept the work to the first four or five parts and left out the final hundred ages, I have no doubt his book would have received a vastly more positive response. As it is, those people desperate to dismiss the book as the work of a self-obsessed crank found, in this last section, all the proof they needed. Pinchbeck’s description of the process by which he comes to realize he is the chosen avatar of Quetzalcoatl and the Great Beast 666 is embarrassing. (No wonder Pinchbeck took a couple of pages out to revile Crowley earlier in the book: he was setting the stage for his own assumption of power and had to be sure to banish all pretenders first.) Then, when Pinchbeck reveals the Quetzalcoatl “transmission,” it is a lackluster piece of prose, offering nothing he hasn’t said already, and better, in the previous pages. Pinchbeck writes:

“The writer of this work is the vehicle for my arrival—my return—to this realm. He certainly did not expect this to be the case. What began as a quest to understand prophecy has become the fulfillment of prophecy. The vehicle of my arrival has been brought to an awareness of his situation in sometimes painful increments and stages of resistance—and this book follows the evolution of his learning process, as an aid to the reader’s understanding. . . . almost apologetically, the vehicle notes that his birthday fell in June 1966—6/66—‘count the number of the Beast. . . .’ The Beast prophesied is the ‘feathered serpent,’ Quetzalcoatl.”

Is Pinchbeck so deluded he fails to see that the proof of his prophet-status is only ever in the pudding? If he had let the work speak for itself, he might have had a shot at becoming a leading spokesperson for the Eschaton; instead he couldn’t wait to be coronated, and manufactured his own tawdry crown, turning his book into a declaration of its own importance, and of its author’s quasi-divine status. As a result, he merely demonstrates the pathological delusions which invariably befall the magician on his path to freedom. What makes this even more depressing is that Pinchbeck is fully aware of the possibility, and yet maintains the delusion anyway.

“[P]erhaps I had succumbed to a trap set by malicious entities from the astral plane, puffing me up with delusions of grandeur, ready to tear me down in future, as they had done to poor Aleister Crowley…?” He even cites his hero Terence McKenna: “The notion of some kind of fantastically complicated visionary revelation that happens to put one at the center of the action is a symptom of mental illness.” Apparently Pinchbeck believes that simply acknowledging these possibilities is enough to banish them. (He makes it clear he is nobody’s fool.) But I’d wager the reverse is the case: by showing himself willing to entertain the idea that he has been duped, he convinces himself that such a thing could never happen to him. But it did.

I have little doubt Pinchbeck’s editors begged him to leave out the last segment of the book, but you can bet Pinchbeck was having none of it. This was the essence of the work, the essence of his message, that the quest for prophecy, etc, etc. But by making the whole work—the whole “return of Quetzalcoatl”—about himself, he reduces 2012 to a personal rant and almost obliges the reader to reject it, baby with bathwater, as a deeply embarrassing demonstration on the pitfalls of psychedelic self-importance. In the words of William Irwin Thompson (Coming Into Being), “One ends up with the mushroom-chewing hippie trying to pretend he is a yogi, but what he really is a [sic] psychically inflated personality whose ego has gone through a process of magnification and explosion rather than purification. . . [a] psychedelic fundamentalist, the Mushroom Mullah on the lecture circuit, with all the dissonance of a charismatic but nevertheless disturbed and unstable personality.”

A Rolling Stone article notes how Pinchbeck’s original publisher dropped the book: “Gerald Howard, a venerable editor of authors like Don DeLillo, offering the comment, ‘Daniel, you’re not Nietzsche.’ Says Pinchbeck, ‘It was hard for him to conceive that someone of my generation was doing something of primordial significance.’”

It’s clear where Pinchbeck stands in regard to his own talent. Does he really believe, in the light of all his visions, that a cosmic shift in consciousness hinges around a book he wrote about it?! Apparently, that’s exactly what he believes. Pinchbeck has mistaken his finger for the Moon, and is busy fobbing off menus for meals. He has succumbed to the common delusion that the messenger is more important than the message, that the intellectual apprehension of an idea is essential to its existence. This ties in with Pinchbeck’s fanciful, New Age notion that we (and especially he, as a “visionary”) are creating the future through our thoughts. There is a huge difference between admitting that our thoughts influence reality and claiming that they create it, but it’s a difference Pinchbeck seems to have willfully ignored. It’s basically the same abyss that lies between the idea of tuning into the archetypal energy of “Quetzalcoatl,” and of being the (sole) chosen vessel of a god: the difference between enlightened responsibility and demented self-importance (i.e., hubris).

The sad fact is that this kind of thinking usually winds up having the very opposite effect to the one intended. Pinchbeck’s insistence on believing he is The One—the world’s savior—doesn’t make it so; it only cripples his ability to be an efficient messenger. By the end of the book, Pinchbeck has accomplished something I would have thought impossible: he made me feel jaded and cynical about the Apocalypse. In the end, 2012 presents probably the best argument there is for steering clear of psychedelics and of consciousness expansion in general. If taking the red pill is going to turn us into Daniel Pinchbeck, for God’s sake take the blue pill! Pinchbeck has gone over to the dark side without even knowing it. Great beast indeed.

Aeolus Kephas © 2008

[1] By choosing to call the book 2012, however, Pinchbeck has gone out on a limb. It seems unlikely, to say the least, that the kind of global shift of consciousness he predicts will occur in the next four years, and if it did, that it would mean anything besides madness and catastrophe for the vast majority. Since Pinchbeck is describing a movement of paradigms so total as to entail “the end of reality,” he might have been wise to have allowed a few decades for such a shift to occur.

[2] Two things come to mind. His dismissal of Crowley’s (channeled) Book of the Law as “much like the rhyming reams of mediocrity verse produced by Crowley himself” seems deliberately obtuse: The Book of the Law stands so far above Crowley’s other poetry that this discrepancy is perhaps the best evidence for the book’s otherworldly origins. And Pinchbeck’s insistence on viewing “the grays” as a wholly negative phenomenon seems slightly paranoid, to say the least (though his description of Dolores Cannon as a Cronenberg-style villainess is amusing).

[3] The moment critics realize Pinchbeck has a personal stake in his message, they are bound to move in for the kill. 2012 is advocating a total transformation of values, beliefs, modes of thinking and lifestyle. Its message, between the lines at least, is identical to that of prophets of old: Repent, for the end is at hand. The fact that Pinchbeck may be right does not make the message any easier to swallow (on the contrary), and the easiest way for his audience to escape the responsibility which such a message carries is simply to kill the messenger.


Dave said...

should i give it a read?

Cary said...

"He has succumbed to the common delusion that the messenger is more important than the message, that the intellectual apprehension of an idea is essential to its existence."

You’ve surmised everything that’s wrong with the (art) world in a single sentence.

Amy George said...

I don’t disagree that Pinchbeck “has gone over to the dark side without even knowing it,” but I think it may be enriching to see his excesses in perspective. From my own experience of consciousness expansion (unaided by psychedelics) I have learned that such exploration of the cosmos can put immense demands on the ego, causing the psyche to compensate with schizoid material, such as the Transmission. I see Quetzalcoatl as Daniel’s own psyche forcing order onto experience.

Instead of seeing the book as on-the-mark yet out-to-lunch, I see the last part as instructive, as a lesson about the toll apocalypse takes on the mind and spirit. The book is three parts a study and one part memoir, but I didn’t see this as failure, but as simply the personal side of a cosmic story.

It is telling that few eschatologists are female, and that eschatology is rife with doom, conspiracy, and the brink of panic. It is crazily self-important. Perhaps it is the same old story when Daniel repeats it, but I think that to dismiss his story as delusioal is to stop short of appreciating it for what it archetypally is: eschatological man acting without deference to the feminine – while Apocalypse is more essentially about empowering the feminine (and balancing the masculine). In that Daniel’s conflict with the feminine is inextricable from his quest, it belongs in the book. Perhaps it might have been 50/50 instead of 75/25.

If a name is reflective of essence, “Pinchbeck,” meaning “fake gold,” is fitting. The gold would be real, and alchemical, were Daniel able to share it with woman. He'll never be able to until he can subordinate his ideas to feeling.

aeolus kephas said...


your comments about DP are on the money. Afraid the intellect-writer i me cannot help but lament "bad writing" however, no matter what cause it serves!

it's a curious paradox that if DP had been aware of the delusional nature of the last part of his book, it would not have illustrated to the same degree the dangers of such delusions. But there is another danger in this, that many people (mostly men, perhaps) take DP at his word and accept the fool's goal as genuine alchemical gold. This is bad for the duped, but possibly fatal for the duper, trafficker in fake gold - he may never realize that there is such a thing as the genuine article. Of course many, make that most, gurus and "prophets" fall into this same trap.