At short notice I went down to London yesterday to take part in The Great Elf Debate, a session organised by the tireless Dr David Luke (one of the brains behind Breaking Convention), as part of his excellent Ecology, Cosmos and Consciousness series at the October Gallery.
There are numerous trip reports from people taking indole tryptamine hallucinogens - DMT, ayahuasca, psilocybin, iboga etc - of encounters with entities, tricksy discarnate spirits who seem to possess agency and are eager to communicate with us. In short, elves. The $64 million question is, of course, what is their ontological status? Are they objectively real, conjurations of the mind, or simply symptoms of insanity?
During my last, large, excursion into the psilosphere, and rather to my annoyance given my sceptical approach to the matter, I had the distinct impression of being observed by alien intelligences, who were poised to welcome humanity into some kind of galactic citizenship, should we merit the transition - the 'full McKenna' as it's called. Bollocks! I stood dumbfounded, thinking perhaps that all the psy-fi stuff I'd read about was true.
In the half-light of dawn I watched a strange light dance back and forwards across the downs, almost within reach. Bollocks again, I thought! Fairies! That is, until the light resolved itself into the headlights of a car, commuting through the early hours along the A4. Double blast and bollocks! Someone was playing games with me...
Back in the October Gallery, David gave an erudite summary of elves in folklore and psychedelia, illuminated with his own otherworldly encounters. I spoke briefly about how difficult it is to ground elvish contact in objective reality (which is not to say that they are figments of the imagination, just that it's very difficult to say with any certainty what they are), while James Kent skyped in from Seattle with the view that elves exist only in the mind. That his elves have been unable to say anything useful, beyond mischievously returning his every question, seems strongly to support his case.
Two ideas occurred to me during the evening. The first is that elves might be some gestalt creation of the mind. Occasionally, during that hypnagogic half-awake phase, song lyrics come tumbling out of me and, what's more, they rhyme and scan perfectly while the images they evoke elide together into unexpected metaphors. It's as if with my conscious brain distracted, my unconscious mind can work freely such that the lyrics arrive in one glorious and unexpected gestalt: almost as if they were presented to me. Perhaps the same is true of the elves, that under the influence of certain hallucinogens, the mind gestalts beings - in truth, extensions of itself - that appear autonomous. Maybe.
The second came from thinking about that most seasonal of birds, the cuckoo. The cuckoo doesn't rear its own young but lays its eggs in other birds' nests, and fools them into rearing its monstrous, parasitical chicks. Is there a parallel with our relationship to plants? It takes a lot of energy to maintain a brain capable of consciously acting, so perhaps, in evolutionary terms, certain plants have saved themselves the bother by simply producing molecules by which they can hijack that of a passing mammal. By affecting the parts of the brain to do with language, vision, and people-recognition, the molecules create avatars of themselves which appear to us as other-than-human-persons, to use Irving Hallowell's phrase. So, if this were the case, the elves would literally be plants talking to us.
There are two problems with this Cuckoo hypothesis. First, beyond encouraging us to become Johnny Appleseeds, it is not entirely clear what a plant would get out of the bargain. If we could establish beyond doubt that the elves had some kind of consistent message for us, which is not culturally-bound, then that would certainly lend some support to the idea, but I'm not sure this can be done. Second, it requires that humans and hallucinogenic plants have had a long evolutionary relationship (symbiotic or parasitical - take your pick) , and, as readers of Shroom will know, evidence for this is, at least in the case of psilocybin mushrooms, is questionable. Perhaps the Cuckoo hypothesis is simply cuckoo.
To return to my dancing light - was it a fairy or a car headlight, or both? Trust a denizen of the otherworld to leave me utterly bewildered...