Drugs and bad dates: 2012 ‘Doomsday’ industry teeters

Drugs and bad dates: 2012 ‘Doomsday’ industry teeters

It turns out that the person most responsible for popularising the 2012 Mayan doomsday prophecy is a disillusioned New York literateur, a writer who’s dabbled in hardcore hallucinogens with tribes in Gabon and the Amazon. Now that a scientific book has been released which questions the Mayan calendar’s reliability, what will happen to Daniel Pinchbeck’s sex life? By KEVIN BLOOM.

His name is Daniel Pinchbeck, and he’s probably the world’s most influential authority on his subject. The son of an abstract painter and a woman who once dated Jack Kerouac, Pinchbeck’s gravitas has its roots in the New York counter-culture movement of the ‘50s and early ‘60s – his mother’s bestselling book, Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir, chronicles the lives of the women of the inner Beatnik circle, for which it won a National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1990, Pinchbeck founded the literary magazine Open City with Thomas Beller and Robert Bingham, and he’s written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, Village Voice and the New York Times Magazine. In 1994, the last of these titles listed him amongst the “Thirty Under Thirty” destined to change mainstream culture.

By his own admission, Pinchbeck has done a lot of drugs. His personal voyage from cynical New York literary journalist to New Age psychedelic believer is outlined in his 2002 non-fiction work Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism. The book is generally about Pinchbeck’s time spent learning the fundamentals of the Bwiti religion with the forest-dwelling tribes of West Central Africa, and is specifically about his experiences while tripping on the rootbark of the hallucinogenic iboga plant. In a long article for Salon published in 1999, where he comes across as spoilt and petulant – his unfairly treated guide was the late and legendary South African botanist Dan Lieberman – Pinchbeck describes his first encounter with the plant.

“Closing my eyes, I saw Technicolor patterns,” he writes. “I fell into a trance, floating to the Bwiti music. Aspects of my past life flared up in my mind, like gleaming facets of a larger whole. I reviewed my childhood – my parents’ separation, my mother’s loneliness, my own unhappiness. I felt myself as the product of all the forces that had acted upon me. Henry James once described human consciousness as ‘a helpless jelly poured into a mold.’ It seemed as if iboga compelled me to perceive the exact shape of that mold. It was dizzying and liberating.”

After parlaying that trip into the book that would define his new reputation, Pinchbeck moved onto his own direct relationship with prophecy in the 2006 non-fiction text 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. Here the Amazonian brew ayahuasca is the chief hallucinogenic agent, and Pinchbeck writes about hearing the voice of the Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl during an expedition to the Amazon in 2004. Crop circles, extra-sensory perception, and the Mayan calendar end-time date of 21 December 2012 also make cameo appearances in the book.

From there, it was a hop and a jump to several listings as an “expert” on widely-distributed documentaries that sought to examine the truth behind the 2012 prophecies. It was also a short journey to a third book, Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age, which he co-edited with Ken Jordan. Hollywood director Roland Emmerich, who had already demolished the White House in a big-budget motion picture, used Pinchbeck’s authority as an excuse to do it again in the film 2012. 

A short piece that ran in New York magazine in 2009 (sorry about all these dates, but they’re important in the context) tells the tale of a junket sponsored by Sony Pictures to promote the film, at which the director, the stars, Pinchbeck, and a couple of “2012ologists” were present. “While I talked to Jenkins and Joseph,” the journalist writes of the 2102ologists, “Pinchbeck hunched over his BlackBerry and pounded out e-mails with his thumbs. When I asked the 2012ologists how they planned to sell books in 2013, Pinchbeck glanced up from his screen and offered, with a glint of hope, ‘1984 still sells well.’”

The less said of the comparison to George Orwell, the better. Thing is, on 24 October 2010 the online version of New York magazine posted a short update on the Pinchbeck affair – seems that a just-released “scientifically-researched” book, Calendars and Years II: The Astronomy and Time in the Ancient and Medieval World, confirms that the conversion from the Mayan calendar to correspond with the end-time date of 2012 could be off by 50 to 100 years. The discrepancy is based on the fact that much of the material used for converting the Mayan calendar into the Gregorian calendar depends on colonial-era documents that were written in the Mayan language using the Latin alphabet – a respected University of California researcher, Gerardo Aldana, apparently makes a persuasive argument in the book that these historical documents are “unreliable”.

The online journal LiveScience first covered the theory on 18 October this year, and noted: “Aldana doesn’t have any answers as to what the correct calendar conversion might be, preferring to focus on why the current interpretation may be wrong. Looks like end-of-the-world theorists may need to find another ancient calendar on which to pin their apocalyptic hopes.”

Would these end-of-the-world theorists include the thousands of worldwide acolytes of Harold Camping, who The Daily Maverick has been following for some time now (see link below for the interesting day we spent with them in Johannesburg a few months back)? Maybe, Camping’s people have always claimed their authority from the Bible, and their End of Days date is 21 May 2011 as opposed to 19 months later, but it would still be disingenuous of them to claim that Pinchbeck’s oeuvre has nothing to do with their popularity. More interesting, though, is how Pinchbeck is going to continue to get bylines in the US’s highbrow titles come 2013, and what’s going to happen to his sex life. 

Because if 21 December 2012 isn’t a bad date, a discredited Pinchbeck might be – in his Quetzalcoatl book he proudly advertises his acts of infidelity and newfound interest in polyamory, the practice of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the consent of everyone involved… DM

Read more: “Tripping on iboga,” by Daniel Pinchbeck in Salon in 1999, “How to Sell an Apocalypse,” in New York magazine, 2009, “So, Actually, The World Might Not End in 2012,” in New York magazine, October 2010, “End of the Earth Postponed,” in LiveScience, October 2010 , “May 21, 2011: Judgment Day believers descend on Joburg,” in The Daily Maverick.


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