I read Jeremy Narby’s The Cosmic Serpent in a sequence that I began with Bateson’s Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity and continued with Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine. All of these books are generalist studies that apply the latest (1960s for the earlier ones, and 1990s for Narby) scientific information about biology and evolution to problems that include the nature of consciousness and the alienation of humanity. Narby, like Bateson, is an anthropologist by primary academic training. Like Koestler in The Ghost in the Machine, he turns vigorously against the intellectual status quo, challenging the implicit doctrines of anthropology in the way that Koestler does for psychology. All three authors ultimately reject to varying degrees the mechanistic materialism that is the principal intellectual heritage of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Narby’s (prudent) decision to frame his book as a narrative of personal discovery creates an apparent kinship with the “thick description” ethnography of Geertz, but one of his indictments of the anthropological field is that its texts (particularly those of the structuralists) tend to be arcane and tedious. A graver accusation, and probably one of more general application, is that anthropologists are involved in a work of cultural and intellectual expropriation, plundering the knowledge of societies they study, but attempting to “preserve” indigenous peoples by insulating them from the ability to criticize or benefit from Western knowledge. He also insists that the method and products of comparative religion (after the fashion of Eliade) deserve rehabilitation in the face of anthropological critiques.
Although rooted in Narby’s experiences doing anthropological fieldwork among the Ashaninca people of the Amazon basin, the thesis of this book was developed through a cultivated mixture of academic textual research and “defocusing” non-rational contemplation. Wrestling with such difficulties as the mechanisms of hallucination and the nature of spirits that provide indigenous people with sophisticated botanical knowledge, he began to understand metaphoric expression and interpretation as necessary to his work. The section that describes the development of his method culminates in a fusion of his abstracted awareness with his concrete surroundings: “The path I was following led to a crystalline cascade gushing out a limestone cliff. The water was sparkling and tasted like champagne” (52). I read this partly to describe the exhilaration of his emergence from the rational academic consensus, and also as a metaphor for DNA (the “crystalline cascade”) as the destination of the intellectual “path [he] was following.”
After much provocative exploration of molecular biology and comparative shamanism (for which his sources are all of impeccable credibility), Narby intimates that it may be a function of the “junk DNA,” which comprises the vast majority of known bio-genetic material, to communicate and coordinate through the emission and reception of electromagnetic signals. Consequently, the entire biosphere may possess a single, ramified consciousness — the Cosmic Serpent of the title — which is accessible in whole or part to individual humans with the use of shamanic techniques.
It is of no small interest to me that Narby’s ideas track very closely with my own accustomed readings of preeminent passages in Thelemic scripture, as well as illuminating certain symbols of secret initiation to the real summit of the Royal Art. My reading of this book (and it didn’t take very long) was attended by some notable synchronistic experiences. To instance one: I acquired an “Aquarius Dragon” to supplement a card game, with the net effect that the game now represents a world of five elements uncoiling from a dragon. [And minutes after first writing this review, I read that the private aerospace company Space X will be launching their Dragon vehicle to dock with the International Space Station this weekend.]
I hugely enjoyed this book, and I anticipate that I will eventually get around to its successor volume Intelligence in Nature. In the meanwhile, however, this thread of my reading will take a turn into the anthology volume Entheogens and the Future of Religion. (Narby, by the way, discountenances the term entheogen because of its metaphysical baggage. He passes no judgment on the word psychedelic — which seems congenial to his thesis — but he uses and seeks to revalorize hallucinogen, insisting that its pejorative connotation is alien to its etymology.)