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Full Review
Trialogues at the Edge of the West
by Ralph Abraham, Terence McKenna & Rupert Sheldrake
Bear & Company 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Justin Case, 2/16/2007

Have you ever had a friend introduce you to someone because he or she felt that, given your mutually obscure interests, you had a lot to talk about? Have you ever had one of those conversations that inspire more and more thoughts as it goes on and on? This book reads like just such a conversation. Ralph Abraham, Terence McKenna and Rupert Sheldrake were introduced to each other through friends that felt they would have a lot to talk about with each other, and indeed they did. As the authors note, “Ever since Plato, dialogues have been recognized as a uniquely effective way of exploring the realm of thought: they are the basis of the dialectical method. But insofar as the dialectic of two points of view can result in a synthesis, it presupposes a third point of view that includes the two starting positions. We have found that trialogues have a more harmonious dynamic than dialogues with only two people, partly because the synthesis implicit in a fruitful dialogue can be made explicit by a third person…” After meeting periodically for some time these three decided to do some stand-up “trialogues” in public. Trialogues at the Edge of the West is an edited transcript of a few conversations conducted at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California over four days in 1982 and three days in 1990. The phrase “the Edge of the West” not only refers to the geographical location of these conversations, but to the peripheral edge of western thought at which these talks take place.

Ralph Abraham has a Ph.D. in mathematics, participated in the creation of a new branch of math called global analysis, and is involved in new theories of nonlinear dynamics, chaos, and bifurcations. He is perhaps an unusual mathematician in that he was turned on to LSD in the 1960s, went on something of a spiritual quest in India and seems well versed in metaphysics, spirituality, creativity and other pursuits that one does not usually associate with math. The well-known Terence McKenna graduated from the University of Berkeley, California and wrote a number of books including Food of the Gods, The Archaic Revival and, along with his brother Dennis, The Invisible Landscape and Psilocybin: The Magic Mushroom Growers’ Guide. Before his death in 2000, he was well known for his many public speaking engagements addressing the psychedelic experience and related topics. Rupert Sheldrake holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cambridge and has written A New Science of Life, The Presence of the Past and The Rebirth of Nature. He is perhaps best known as the man who was effectively ostracized from the British scientific community for work that suggests that there is some non-physical (or at least undetected) medium-which he called the morphogenetic field-that allows information transfer within a given species. This “telepathic” field would explain how animals of a given species are able to learn from each other and form new collective habits beyond natural selection or any known means of communication.

Despite the fact that the authors are all scientifically trained and university educated, they still have a passion for the mysteries of life and they are full of wonder and far-reaching questions. They don’t always agree but they inspire and compliment each other’s wild speculations. Some of the topics they explore include the myth and science of chaos (in both the original mythological sense and in the sense it is used in chaos theory), dark matter as a sort of cosmic unconscious, the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the nature of the nonphysical entities encountered through psychedelics and occult practices. They also take on the emergence of ego supremacy, and the corresponding deepening and darkening of the unconscious, along with morphogenetic fields, and the apocalypse.

Since this is a review for Erowid, it would be appropriate to say how this book pertains to psychedelics, a term Terence McKenna preferred over the term “entheogens.” Overall, most of the subject matter would likely be interesting to many of us who tend to think deeply during and as a result of our entheogen/psychedelic sessions. Let us indulge in one intentionally selected quote here as an example of how the topic of psychedelics are worked into the trialogues, “If you think about the mushroom, it is perfectly engineered for truly long-duration survival and adaptation. Look how lightly it touches matter. Its mycelium is simply a cobweb of the soil of any planet, and yet it synapses upon itself and is full of neurotransmitter-like psychedelic compounds. It’s like a thinking brain, yet it condenses itself down into a thing three microns across, of which several million per minute can be shed by a single carpophore. Spores are perfectly designed to travel in space. They can endure extremes of temperature…This is an example of how an abstract notion like the world soul can penetrate the upper levels of the world of biology and organisms.”

Although the book is good for what it is and it makes no claims to be more than it is, after reading it I still felt a lack of detail and depth. To be fair, three people conversing can not possible provide the depth and detail that a single author can with good reference books and time to research. Also, in defense of the book, I can say that anyone who has even a basic familiarity with the topics they discuss will find this book easy to read. It is not intimidating to casual readers.

It is somewhat refreshing to see scientifically trained and university educated people go off into far-out theories and speculations. But on the flipside, I felt their trialogues would have been better if their were more instances where they touched ground in the “real” world as we experience it: the world of flesh, bone, dirt and stone; the here and now. Although I enjoy their wild abandonment to speculative trains of thought, they could have used more “devil’s advocate” skepticism to balance or at least offset all the fanciful speculation. Finally, there is too much “cosmic Christ” stuff and apocalyptic material for my taste. To be fair, however, both latent monism and paranoia about the end of everything we know are characteristic western aberrations, and this is a book grounded in Western thought.

I think that a good indicator of who may and who may not enjoy this book would be the topics described above. If upon reading over that list you scratch your head and wonder what they mean, this is probably not a good book for you unless you have a desire to find out what they mean. If, upon reading that list, your interest is sparked then you just might like this book, but keep in mind the few criticisms I mentioned above. Fans of Terence McKenna’s work will not find anything new from him in this book. However, it is interesting to see his peculiar ideas bounced off Abraham and Sheldrake.

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