Who was Timothy Leary? You may have heard the name, you may be familiar with his books, or maybe you are party to 1960’s counterculture movements already. KNOW YOU of the grinning LSD shaman and pop icon outlaw, who rode with the Beat generation, sang with the Beatles and Dylan, and tripped alongside the Diggers and the Brotherhood of Eternal Love? Before you read of him and what his work relays our cyberpunk era, a warning, from the man himself:
|“This is a message to young people. To people under the age of 25 and certainly to people under the age of 40. If you’re over the age of 40 I’m not sure that you should listen. What I’m going to say might make you mad. I don’t like to get people mad. I particularly don’t like to get people over the age of 40 mad, because these are the people who have guns, and handcuffs, and prisons – a wide variety of instruments of metal with which they punish people who get them mad. Young people for the most part aren’t so concerned with control. They’re much more involved in having fun, in being curious, in exploring their sensual equipment– Making adventurous exploration. Making love.” |
– Pioneer Of The Spirit Timothy Leary – The Lost Talks, compiled/narrated by Geoffrey Giuliano
INTRO: The Bomb vs The Computer vs The Drug
“Computers were essential to the initiation of nuclear explosions, and to understanding what happens next. […] It is no coincidence that the most destructive and the most constructive of human inventions appeared at exactly the same time. Only the collective intelligence of computers could save us from the destructive powers of the weapons they had allowed to invent.”
– George Dyson, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins Of The Digital Universe
“Dr. Ralph Metzner, the third member of the Harvard triumvirate, suggested that the appearance of LSD constituted nothing less than a turning point in human evolution. It was no coincidence, he maintained, that Dr. Hofmann discovered the effects of LSD shortly after the first nuclear chain reaction was achieved by the Manhattan Project. His remarks seemed to imply that LSD was some sort of divine antidote to the nuclear curse and that humanity must pay heed to the psychedelic revelation if it was to alter its self-destructive course and avert a major catastrophe.”
– Remarks at the October 1977 conference ‘LSD: A Generation Later’, as reported in the book ‘Acid Dreams: The CIA, LSD and the Sixties Rebellion’ by Martin A. Lee, Bruce Shlain
PART ONE: A SCIENTIST DOSED BY THEIR HYPOTHESIS, ONE’S LIFE BECOMES AN EXPERIMENT
THE GUINEA PIG AND THE FLY
Have you heard the one about the blind Messiah? No? It goes like this. A Harvard Psychology Professor, let’s call him Tim Leary, is giving out psychedelic mushroom capsules to various ‘test subjects’, as he did to thousands of subjects over the years, not in so much a controlled environment, but let’s say, in his house. In the early days of this scientist’s experimenting, before fully taking to heart his idea of removing the white lab coat and becoming fully part of the experiment. ( To say nothing of the concept of transference, which I have not read of Leary addressing.) His daughter upstairs in her bedroom. And so this test subject one night comes over, let’s call him, I don’t know, Allen Ginsberg. And they take these pills, and they start tripping. And Allen starts flying and singing crazy songs and rolling around in Tim’s bed holding his head, so Tim has to go check on him.
The neurotic Jewish homosexual Allen is feeling the various pressures of being a psychotic poet fundamentally alienated from the entire institutional structure of 1950s society. And Tim says to him, he says “I think you’re wonderful,” something like that, and so this makes the rather nervous and self-conscious Allen feel wonderful. Next thing you know, the whole house is bouncing with Allen’s energy, and he’s saying ‘We’ve got to call everyone! This is going to change the world. We’ll call Kruschev and Kennedy and have them sit down and take these pills and we’ll have world peace!’ And when Tim tells him maybe it’ll be hard to get them on the phone, Allen calls up this buddy of his, let’s say his name is Jack Kerouac. And pretty soon they’re rapping about breaking chains and William Blake visions and Allen wants to hit the streets, go door to door and proclaim that heaven is here, now! In the flesh! He is come to declare salvation! He tells Tim ‘take off your hearing aid, you don’t need it, we are all perfect!
It’s at this point that Tim looks at Allen and, clearing his throat, mentions that Allen is still wearing his rather thick glasses.
The rapture may… or may not have arrived that late evening. But the sixties counterculture had harnessed higher forces to kick in the door of a few of its harbinger’s open skulls with tidings of ecstasy and eternal transport. Leary and Ginsberg, combining forces of peace-buttoned scientist lab coat with the pot smoke-smelling corduroy & wool poet’s jacket, poured over Allen’s vast counterculture address book, making a list of who to ‘turn on’ next, and the rest is history, or perhaps somehow… strange future-scape still.
THE MAN IN THE GABERDINE SUIT IS A SPY: MID-LIFE CRISIS IN THE ’50s? OLD SPORT TIMMY LEARY GOES AND TASTES THE FLESH OF GOD!
The book ‘Guinea Pig Scientists’ tells the story of experimenters who made great leaps and progressive strides in science by putting their own bodies on the line to test their hypotheses. Discovering the first viral transmission by allowing infected mosquitoes to bite him, Jesse Lazear died in the process but will forever be remembered as a heroic scientist. There is no entry in ‘Guinea Pig Scientists’ for Timothy Leary, however.
Tim, a Harvard Psychologist at the time he began subject experiments with LSD, had made a career out of attempting to shirk the dominant psychological tradition of Behaviorism, which as much as stated that internal states were simply not important to human activity. Leary had had a rough upbringing, failing to satisfy great expectations of success at various high placements his mother had arranged for her son. His father was a drunk who left Tim and his mother, but also left Tim with a strong imprint of how men behave towards women. Tim was sent to effete private schools which expelled him for sneaking into girls’ dormitories. The LSD guru was even a cadet at the Westpoint Military Academy, following in his family’s tradition, as his father was an army captain and his mother a letter-writing friend of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Being a part of Westpoint’s ‘Long Gray Line’ may have the most formative experience of Tim’s
life, for when he was caught by an upperclassman in a drinking binge and broke the sacred honor code by lying about it, he was subject to a trial, and punished socially by ‘silencing.’ He remained at the school, but no student was permitted to speak to him, on their honor. It’s arguable, under the alienation and stress of that time, he had a nervous breakdown, or he found his strength, as he turned to deep reading, philosophy, and a profound inner investigation to get through it. Two things Tim said of this time stand out; he wrote his mother ‘The silencing is the best thing that ever happened to me.’ And he quipped later in life, the board that let him off the hook for drinking but left him subject to social punishment was “the only fair trial I’ve had in a court of law.”
Arguably failing upwards — or succeeding at remaining a free spirit in a stifling 1950’s environment, and defying conformist institutions– Leary made it to Harvard on the merits of his unique ‘Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality’ which countered Behaviorist psychology. Behaviorism, in my admittedly limited understanding, claimed an individual’s behavior could be understood as a robot’s programming creating actions might be understood. If it is raining, Jim will close the window. Tim’s beliefs held that psychology hinged on interpersonal connections, and our relationships to others.
As a would-be Fitzgeraldian heroic type, pseudo swinging with a social group of Berkeley professors dumping out the flower pitcher to mix martinis to power down, Tim’s dissatisfaction met its most terrifying appraisal when his wife committed suicide due to inability to keep up with his philandering. The first of five wives, Marianne wanted to meet the expectations of a man she had built her life around, and Tim wanted a life outside of society’s strictures. Marianne’s heart was collateral.
Tim’s fate put him in a prison he could not escape, of guilt and remorse. His onward marching had him experimenting under Harvard’s psychology department, locked in a corrections facility with hardened criminals, taking LSD alongside the inmates, testing whether the drug had a therapeutic effect. The idea was to possibly reduce recidivism – the rate criminals return to prison after release; rehabilitation being the technical goal of prisons though often not their actual effect. He conducted experiments with divinity students to see if the drug could invoke a mystical experience around the same time period. Tim believed that LSD could turn one’s life around. Perhaps he needed to believe it; others have noted that his experiments, though noble, were not conducted along stringent scientific standards. In the prison experiment, he either fell victim to an effect whereby one thinks better of their results than they signify, or, worst case, he doctored the results by comparing different time spans for his patients rate to the core prison population, making his results look better by comparison. And he declined to mention that one of the divinity students had an extreme adverse reaction, needing a shot of sedative to calm down, although the experiment did produce genuine spiritual experiences in those who took the drug, according to the subjects themselves, asked at the time, and years later.
A scientist experiments to find out about life and the world, and the scientist who tests the mind, the human spirit, and frontiers at the edge of permitted questioning, tests themselves. In a way I believe Tim experimented as a way of testing his own soul, and of exploring meaning in his life. Tim’s first trip, in Mexico, when he ingested the ‘flesh of the gods’, or teonanácatl of Ancient Aztec culture, also known as ‘magic mushrooms’, a type of spiritual sacrament for several contemporary tribes of indigenous peoples in Central America, I think he wanted something to open a new doorway. While looking to take drugs to change your life is generally a bad plan, historically psychotropic drugs have an ancient reputation of prodding a possibly otherwise stagnant species to growth and change. The term ‘entheogen’ is applied to this usage. So the theory goes, that psychotropics ‘woke up’ ancient man to the consciousness of the cosmos, and gave reverberation to our mind’s reflection as the eyes of the universe, witnessing itself, miraculously self-aware.
Opening Epigraph From HIGH PRIEST –
Memoir of first trips in Mexico & Beyond:
But I—why should I go? By whose decree?
I am not Paul, nor am I yet Aeneas,
unworthy by myself and others. Wherefore, if I
allow myself to go, I fear it would be folly.
—DANTE TO VERGIL
Mark Dery makes the humbling point in his book ‘Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century’ of the sixties drug-takers, that “theirs was the ‘plug-and-play’ nirvana of the ‘gadget-happy American’ – attained not through years of Siddhartalike questioning but instantaneously, by chemical means, amidst the sensory assault of a high-tech happening”(Dery 1996: 29). So, in Leary’s moment of consumer ‘metanoia’ (turning toward God) — profound spiritual transformation, tasting the flesh of god — a vision crystallized: not only of the universe, but of himself as a kind of profiteer of expanding consciousness; to vault forth and to shatter the dull 50’s into a million shards; of sharp-minded movements, barefoot casualties, and glinting reflections from those just passing by.
When he evolved into a fuller form pusher of expanded consciousness, a new experimental method crystallized as well, one even purer and simpler than magic mushrooms: a colorless odorless molecule known as L.S.D.
He would carry on experiments – to better mankind per his lights – while alienating himself from its mainstreams and orthodoxies. He would perpetrate dangerous scientific gambles.
In one sense, Leary was continuing the behavior that shook his wife to the ground, unable to handle the moral confusion of his ‘explorations’. Tim was a believer. He had to be, didn’t he?
In another sense, he was a convert, a man who had had a religious experience, and felt a duty to spread the gospel. This molecule didn’t just throw him off. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, but he also is at a loss to explain. “You don’t understand!” he finds himself saying to those questioning what, why, how he does the things he does. “I can see!” It completely fused itself with his being, and, like Goldblum after traveling through his matter teleporter, he became a sort of destined messenger for the thing he melded with.
The metaphor Leary preferred for his early revelatory LSD based writings was that the drug revealed the ‘reality studio set’ of every day life. That it so aroused one to the present moment that it made people enacting routines and rote behaviors in the grips of cultural indoctrinations, inhibitive moral strictures and belief systems, appear as the incredible and incredulous actors they would to objective observation.
In a world of automatons playing out sitcom lives, the gnostic topplers of falsity needed a bold program — and with Marshall McLuhan’s advice, Tim formed the philosophy of signal disruption into catch phrases easy to swallow as 5th Avenue ad copy. For those daring enough to swim into subverted channels, that is.
TURN ON, TUNE IN, DROP OUT
“You must be known for your smile,” McLuhan advised Tim. And so Tim became the vessel for LSD’s diffusion into the population at large. In the way DNA seeks to disseminate itself on an unconscious level, with humans serving as vehicles for genes, Tim became… The HIGH PRIEST OF LSD.
Timothy Leary was once called ‘The Most Dangerous Man In America’ by none other than the President of the United States. The Most Dangerous man in America is supposed to be the President (who, in this instance, was Richard Nixon)–not a profoundly unserious, prankish professor, pushing a new highly potent, and largely untested psychotropic chemical into the hearts and minds of youth.
But Leary’s path to the most wanted was like how the Mr. Robot character Ray Heyworth describes the usual troubled path through life. The world is dark, and mostly the best we can do is stumble in the right direction, and occasionally, it behooves us to take a stand.
Tim stood to both fame’s applause and the outcast’s castigation, subject to a supremely harsh prison sentence when caught with two sticks of marijuana — Nixon is on tape saying Leary is public enemy #1, a great target, essential putting him away will be great for his administration’s ratings — and chased around the world after escaping prison once, lengthy tribulations as a fugitive, and extended jail time.
Some may find fault in Leary’s biographical details, but in my opinion, the man was braver and swam sharked currents with more steadfastness than most manage.
THE DEVIL’S PRICE
“We were all in the highest and most loving of Moods. (…) This can’t be true. So beautiful. Heaven! But where is the devil’s price? Anything this great must have a terrible flaw in it. It can’t be this good. Is it addictive? Will we ever come down? I hope not.”
– High Priest, Timothy Leary
‘The ecstatic experience did not extend to one member of the party, however: Burroughs had an entirely different reaction. When his friends looked in on him, they found him collapsed against a wall, haggard and tense. “Bill, how are you doing?” one of them asked. Leary recorded Burroughs’ response: “I would like to sound a word of warning. I’m not feeling too well. I was struck by juxtaposition of purple fire mushroomed from the Pain Banks. Urgent Warning. I think I’ll stay here in shriveling envelopes of larval flesh…One of the nastiest cases ever processed by this department.” When the effects of the psilocybin wore off the rest, the tension was pervasive.’
– ‘Nothing Is True-Everything Is Permitted:
The Life of Brion Gysin’ By John Geiger
So, neither side is telling the truth about LSD. The government wants everyone to be afraid of it, pushing the war on drugs.
Whereas Leary gleefully sings its praises and totes it as a panacea. I suppose everyone yearned for a cure for the wars as Vietnam became the first panoramic conflict disseminated
back into the homefront’s living room in living color. And all the disasters of human nature currently at loose in the world becoming larger, closer, and more in your face that ever before cry out for a more potent pill to keep them in check. Technicolor undeniable truth, one wonders if one is meant to handle seeing so much of reality. One wants to react, to make it right. To make one’s view felt by the bludgeoning hippodrome. You buy the ticket, you take the ride. And Leary was the carnival barker, the proselytizer, aiming to convert the world out of a sense of needed momentum, to save the world from an apocalyptic calcification, a freeze-up of spirit coming down. I see in him the criminal, but nonetheless true, wisdom William Blake offers in his ‘Proverbs of Hell’ – “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” And, the less well known, “Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.”
Leary, infamous, a tabloid celebrity figure, was a contentious character even among the outsiders. The Diggers, a kind of anarchist collective that used surrealist guerilla street theater tactics to take advantage of the moment of possibility that was the summer of love to seize on potential change for the world, had some issues with Leary. Their pamphlet ‘Uncle Tim’$ Children’ read in part as follows:
“Pretty little 16-year-old middle class chick comes to the Haight to see what it’s all about & gets picked up by a 17-year-old street dealer who spends all day shooting her full of speed again & again, then feeds her 3000 mikes and raffles off her temporarily unemployed body for the biggest Haight Street gang bang since the night before last.
The politics & ethics of ecstasy.
Rape is as common as bullshit on Haight Street.
The Love Generation never sleeps.
The Oracle continues to recruit for this summer’s Human Shit-In, but the psychedelic plastic flower & god’s eye merchants, shocked by the discovery that increased population doesn’t necessarily guarantee increased profits at all, have invented the Council for a Summer of Love to keep us all from interfering with commerce.
Kids are starving on the Street. Minds & bodies are being maimed as we watch, a scale model of Vietnam. There are people — Our people — dying hideous long deaths among us & the Council is planning alternative activities. Haight Street is uglyshitdeath & Alan Watts suggests more elegant attire.
What does it feel like to be one of the HIP Merchants? To know that you, personally, from the most cynical of greedy motives, have done this to all of these people!
Well, I’ll tell you: it doesn’t feel like that at all, because if that’s who you are, then you’re very careful not to notice what you’ve done. Even now, when the dying sprawl across the doorsteps & have to be swept off before you can open the store. The selectively expanded consciousness does not notice misery. Misery is not beautiful.
The HIP Merchants — the cats who have sold our lovely little psychedelic community to the mass media, to the world, to you — are blithely & sincerely unaware of what they have done. They’re as innocent as a busy-fingered blind man in a nudist colony.
The trouble is probably that the HIP shopkeepers have believed their own bullshit lies. They believe that acid is the answer & neither know nor care what the question is. They think dope is the easy road to God.
“Have you ever been raped?” they say. “Take acid & everything’ll be groovy.”
“Are you ill? Take acid & find inner health.
“Are you cold, sleeping in doorways at night? Take acid & discover your own inner warmth.
“Are you hungry? Take acid & transcend those mundane needs.
“You can’t afford acid? Pardon me, I think I hear somebody calling me.”
In the long term, paradise may be every pilgrim’s due, I do not know. But if one doomscrolls the news at random, it seems a good bet to wager, for every mystic ascension, there’s a My Lai, and a Manson.
Aldous Huxley said, ‘I am very fond of Tim — but why, oh why, does he have to be such an ass? I have told him repeatedly that the only attitude for a researcher in this ticklish field is that of an anthropologist living in the midst of a tribe of potentially dangerous savages.”
Tim either had more faith in the congregation of man, or thought if he was daring enough, he could convert the tribe to his vision. Or maybe he thought he knew the tribe’s gods better than the natives themselves.
You could choose to believe him, or you could side with the bureacrats. The nobodies. The soldiers conscripting you in daydream to take up a rifle and go will the world.
You chose to believe Leary because to choose the alternative made you a monster.
You sided with the chance of magnificence in your soul.
And you, having signed up for this midnight ride to the outer reaches, clung on for dear life.
The miracle was that as the de facto leader of acid-heads everywhere, Tim set any ethical standards for the drug trip at all, but he met the lowest bar. Thou shalt not interfere with another person’s trip, for example, came to him from on high when a fellow tripper wanted to stomp up the mountain (stairs) to a teenage girls bedroom during a sleepover. (Tim was once again letting experiments be conducted in his home with his children there– and his daughter would eventually commit suicide). Tim declared this a hardline ‘no’, effectively writing a moral imperative, engraving a law in stone during an LSD session, a time and place where everything is up for grabs. There are times one must admit the G. Gordon Liddy’s of the world make some salient points.
Soon enough Charlie Manson would fail the same test, but they ended up, Tim and Charlie,in adjoining jail cells, whispering to each other through the vents (as far as I can tell from readings, this actually happened).
STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO: LEARY’S REBIRTH AS THE ‘SOCRATES OF THE INFORMATION AGE