On Tao Lin, Psychedelics, and Leaving Society
In the late spring of 2020, after over two months of near-total confinement to my small Brooklyn apartment, I read Trip, Tao Lin’s nonfiction book about psychedelics. Using his experiences with DMT, salvia, psilocybin, and cannabis—as well as the work of psychonaut Terence McKenna—as his framing, Lin synthesizes mainstream and alternative sources to argue that these naturally occurring chemicals can lead us away from modernity’s default alienated, “existentialist” mindset and toward one of wonder and spiritual engagement.
A psilocybin experience that Lin refers to as his “leave society” trip sparked his interest in the subject. After ingesting psychedelic mushrooms, he had a deeply disorienting experience, feeling as though he were an alien occupying the body of Tao Lin. Reflecting on his recreational drug use and overall dissatisfaction, he decides to leave behind “the writing world and Twitter and Facebook and all culture except books and maybe movies and live alone in a rural area and publish a book about it or never publish another book but just disappear and maybe much later emerge messianically with a book or just never reemerge.” Another possibility: he “would contentedly settle into a long-term relationship . . . and use [his] free time to leisurely research and carefully explore the mystery.” While he’s coming down, he deletes many of his online accounts and throws away his computer. Once the mushroom’s final haze has cleared from his head, of course, he realizes that leaving society isn’t quite so simple, but he remains committed to doing so in one way or another. To this end, he begins experimenting with more psychedelics, eventually turning away from mainstream science and toward more esoteric explanations for the universe and his sense of substance-enabled wonder—following McKenna, he refers to the intangible underlying source of this wonder as “the mystery.”
Taipei, Lin’s previous novel, gives a fictionalized account of a period in Lin’s life preceding his “leave society” trip. Its protagonist, Paul, drifts around in an anesthetized state, intoxicated to varying degrees on an ever-changing cocktail of pharmaceuticals, psychedelics, and “hard” drugs like heroin and cocaine. His intoxication, it seems, is a way to cope with modernity’s mind-numbing monotony and “his increasingly familiar and self-consciously repetitive life.” It all only further alienates him, pushing him away from loved ones and deeper into semi–self-imposed isolation. According to Lin, when he wrote the novel he was taking more drugs than his character, ending up more isolated and addicted than before. Psychedelics, and the “leave society” trip in particular, helped him to abandon his addictions.
I, a disenchanted twentysomething with a tattoo of Sisyphus on my forearm, was intrigued by Lin’s experience. I had read most of his novels and connected with his flat, descriptive prose and the almost robotic behaviors of his largely autobiographical protagonists. I wanted to experience the altered states of consciousness that would bring me an awareness of the mystery in order to, like Lin, feel compelled to make radical changes to my life and attitudes. I set out on a psychedelic journey of my own, the specific details of which my editors have asked me to withhold. The result, though, wasn’t a direct encounter with the mystery, but rather a new openness to the possibility that the mystery might be encountered, and that mainstream, government-sanctioned sources may not be the best way to encounter it.
When I heard that Lin’s new novel would take its name from his transformative trip, I expected that it would be a psychedelic version of Taipei, substituting the earlier novel’s extensive lists of synthetic substances for naturally occurring ones and swapping scenes of frankly described social discomfort for detailed descriptions of substance-assisted internally generated images. Leave Society proved to be something else entirely, retaining only the simplistic prose. It follows Li, another distinctly Lin-like character, as he makes annual visits to his parents’ home in Taipei. He ingests small amounts of LSD and marijuana on a near daily basis, usually just enough to be a little high without being overtly stoned. Li and his parents take their dog, Dudu, for walks, and Li tries to get them to alter their diets to align with what his internet research has shown to be healthiest. All the while, Li works on writing two books—a nonfiction book about psychedelics using his own experiences and the work of Terence McKenna as his framing, and an autobiographical novel about the years following a life-altering psilocybin trip and cataloging his annual visits to Taipei.
As I began the novel, I found myself frustrated by Li, and disappointed in Lin. This is what leaving society means? Going to live with your parents? The first half of the novel makes this appear to be a profoundly regressive course. Li often acts like a bossy, petulant child, demanding, for example, that his father stop taking physician-prescribed cholesterol medication and descending into a funk when his LSD and marijuana supplies run out. He’s largely dismissive of his parents, insisting that their issues—medical and personal—are all simply related to the chemicals in their food and the mercury in their fillings.
And yet, these banal scenes allow Li to connect with the mystery, which is described in Leave Society as “the empirical evidence that things existed outside culture . . . and couldn’t be explained, in terms of who made them, how, and why.” If nothing existed outside of culture, if everything could be easily explained by, say, its utility to the human species, then existentialist alienation and despair would be the correct responses. Culture, as Li sees it, puts glyphosate in our food and microplastics in our placentas, brutalizes people with war, pornography, and the CIA, gives us cancer and diabetes—and it tells us that this is all necessary, it’s progress, it’s the way it should be, it’s even good for us. Having encountered the mystery, Li resists this. There are trees and fermented organic vegetables and Dudu’s capricious whims—things outside the dominant cultural hegemony. Li senses the mystery as “a humbling, friendly, joinable presence.” It’s a world-inclusive, culture-exclusive presence that Li actively seeks out. Visiting his parents in Taipei reminds Li that it’s possible to evade the all-encompassing, inherently violent and destructive consumer culture of Manhattan; he can hunker down with people who love him and research alternative treatments for thyroid issues. It enables his continued awareness of the mystery.
Another way Li stays in touch with the mystery is by inducing “YGs,” essentially lightheadedness that brings him to the verge of fainting, which provides a leaving-the-body sensation that he compares to a DMT trip. He also observes “microfireflies,” “flitting, ephemeral, glowing dots that seemed not in the air, the sky, his mind, or his eyes.” Li speculates that these could be “other-dimensional flickerings of a personal, specieal, or global emergent property,” a briefly visible “infant overmind” created by a “sufficient density of interconnection” between people. Whether or not this is actually the case doesn’t matter; the microfireflies produce a sense of wonder and spark ideas that culture otherwise prohibits, either outright or by derision toward those who openly express them. These semi-mystical experiences are the standouts amid the ordinary, the everyday experiences that keep Li connected to the psychedelic experiences that originally inspired him.
About two thirds of the way through the novel, something truly surprising happens: Li falls in love. After several years of celibacy, a rekindled friendship leads to a relationship with a woman named Kay. Their courtship is compared to the Goldberg Variations and juxtaposed with expository text about Çatalhöyük, a highly advanced Neolithic settlement that disappeared around 7,500 years ago. Falling in love, then, seems to be the ultimate experience of the mystery, the most accessible way to reach the presence outside of culture. The blossoming relationship also provides an opportunity for Li to grow emotionally, allowing the time spent with his parents and himself to finally produce more harmonious, loving, and genuine interactions. At the end of the novel, Li and Kay agree to move to Hawaii together.
What, then, of the psychedelics that catalyzed Li’s journey? If they’re not needed to access the mystery, then are they needed? Li concludes that powerful psychedelics “produced awe and wonder, but so did reading nonfiction books that referenced ideas outside the mainstream, and that reading seemed better for stability and recovery and was maybe even more life-changing and suited to him, as a way to explore and learn, than dimension-rending psychedelics.” Learning about prehistoric societies, alternative medicine, and new ways of interacting with the world—then implementing these ideas in his own life—allows for a greater change than simply entering altered states of consciousness, though that was what led Li to begin that search. The trip itself is not the destination.
In DMT: The Spirit Molecule, clinical psychiatrist Rick Strassman’s account of his legally conducted experiments with DMT in the early 1990s, the author reaches a similar conclusion. Strassman notes—with clear disappointment—that he arrived at “the deep and undeniable realization that DMT is not inherently therapeutic.” Of his research subjects, none experienced any long-term change in their lives because of their DMT experiences: “no one began psychotherapy or a spiritual discipline to work further on the insights they felt on DMT.” In continuing to search for the mystery after his trips, Li goes further with his psychedelic insights than Strassman’s studies would indicate is typical. And yet, he concludes that it’s his later research and self-experimentation that finally brings him closer to re-enchantment and allows him to fall in love and bond with his family. The psychedelics served as one tool among many, and a relatively less helpful one at that.
What, then, of leaving society? Li and Kay decide to move to Hawaii, which is still part of society—and modern American industrilalized society at that—and the book ends after this. Leaving society seems to be less about leaving civilization than about leaving behind what Li (and, in Trip, Lin), following sociologist Riane Eisler, refers to as dominator society, the current system as it has been constructed since the beginning of recorded history. The ultimate articulation of this comes as an anticlimax on the second-to-last page of the novel. Kay asks Li if moving to Hawaii will be leaving society. He tells her that “he’d been viewing leaving as a relative thing. They lived in midtown Manhattan, so almost any change would qualify.” Any change, that is, that pulls them further from major metropolitan centers, consumer technology, agricultural chemicals, and so on. In Trip, Lin gives a more specific articulation of this. Once the internal shock of the “leave society” trip has subsided, he concludes that he
”would leave society—its drugs and language and ideas and habits and opinions and websites—incrementally. I would use psychedelics, books, my history, my mind, and my body to continue learning and to fill my unconscious with more of my experiences and the mystery and less of culture and its hierarchies, so that I wouldn’t sink . . . back into the life I’d once wanted—and had felt, surprisingly and gratefully, empowered—to leave.”
Leaving society appears as a process, one that continues as long as it remains a goal.
Has Tao Lin left society? In the literal sense, no, not at all: He’s still a commercially publishing author with an active online presence living in the United States. And yet, he is leaving society. As he said in a recent interview, “it’s not an either-or activity”: “When I’m viewing a tree instead of an advertisement, I’m leaving society. When I’m meditating instead of ruminating on negative thoughts, I’m leaving society. . . . When I’m working on my garden or playing with my cats, I’m leaving society.” The power of Lin’s recent writing, both in Trip and especially in his new novel, is that it reminds us that society is an option; we can all leave whenever we want. We even do so just by reading his books.
It’s nearly impossible to discuss Lin’s writing without conflating author and character—his novels are so heavily autobiographical that they are essentially identical. Lin said in a recent interview that after his first two prose books, he has “been pretty strict with only using material that really happened to me.” It becomes fiction “when I choose what to include.” In Leave Society, the protagonist’s name is literally the author’s but with a letter excluded (Li vs. Lin). Still, like any good post-Barthesian writer, I’ve tried to treat characters and author as separate entities as much as possible; please forgive any lapses. ↩︎
I’m reminded (as I often am) of Paul Schrader’s 2017 film First Reformed. In it, Pastor Ernst Toller (played by a meekly frowning Ethan Hawke), inspired by the suicide of an ecoterrorist parishioner, sets out on an environmentalist crusade. Along the way, he bonds with Mary (Amand Seyfried), the pregnant wife of the deceased parishioner. The film’s climax shows Toller prepping to make a bold statement about the environment and the church’s complicity in its degradation: he straps himself into a bomb vest, planning to detonate himself at an ostentatious church anniversary service. Before he can leave, Mary enters his room, and they passionately embrace as the camera revolves around them. A bombing wouldn’t save the environment, and Toller’s and Mary’s refusal to give into the despair of a dying planet signals more than the bombing ever could. What is a planet, anyway, when two people can be together at the center of their own universe? ↩︎
Lin and his partner have lived in Hawaii since early 2020. ↩︎