You get the Leary you deserve.
June 26, 2008 5:56 PM   Subscribe


Before the haters arrive, I'd like to say that I find Leary's work incredibly useful and his optimism to be infectious. The Game of Life was the first book of his I came across, and it was a huge inspiration to me. And a huge reminder to not take myself too seriously.

People maligned him then out of fear or inflexibility, and they malign him now unfairly through hindsight. The truth is that at the time, experts in many fields were all discovering the same thing-- that our world and our consciousness are things we know less about than we ever could have dreamed. He just found that more delightful than most.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 6:06 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

They also malign him for being an FBI informant.
posted by euphorb at 6:45 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd like to say that I find Leary's work incredibly useful

Norman Zinberg's book, Drug, Set and Setting is generally acknowledged as providing the field with some of the basic tools for understanding how drugs 'work', so to speak. (The idea that any drug experience is always a combination of pharmacology -- the drug, psychology -- the mind set, and the environmental context in which the drug is taken -- the setting.)

While Zinberg undoubtedly popularized this paradigm, I'm pretty sure that Leary used the same formulation when talking about acid in The Politics of Ecstasy nearly twenty years earlier. Of course, as they were both working at Harvard at the same time, and probably knew each other, it may well be that Leary was using concepts that Zinberg had identified but hadn't published. But I suspect its more likely that academics and drug treatment people are just unwilling to give Leary credit for anything positive.

Also: this thread is useless without a couple of hits of Owsley Sunshine.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:48 PM on June 26, 2008

Beyond Life remains one of the only albums I ever accepted a "preview copy" of when working in college radio. Today it's a little doofy-sounding, but there's something charming about the endearing zaniness that comes out of the man's mouth. It makes me want to one day be able to self-aggrandize in such a way - living my own narrative as I tell it.

"Poor Doctor Leary / Poor earth."
posted by abulafa at 6:57 PM on June 26, 2008

I saw leary lecture at my sister's college a few years before he died. Homeboy was definitely a bit crispy around the edges. Then again, if I recall correctly, that night, so was I.
posted by jonmc at 7:03 PM on June 26, 2008

Timothy Leary's Mind Mirror, Electronic Arts, 1985.
posted by Dave Faris at 7:22 PM on June 26, 2008 [3 favorites]

If you really want some weird Leary recollections - find "Track 10" on Skinny Puppy's "Brap" (the song is also sometimes called "Left Handshake"), wherein Ogre screams these insane retorts to Leary's advice on how to avoid a bad trip. Apparently, Leary himself signed off on the usage of the samples, but after his passing the new copyright holders said "uhh... no".

Just doesn't really make sense. Did Leary have a reputation to uphold that being sampled by brooding animal rights activist noise rockers would somehow tarnish his years of hard work?
posted by revmitcz at 7:28 PM on June 26, 2008

We were both speaking at the same convention back in 91. There is a picture of us together sitting on my shelf as I type this. Neat guy. Didn't get to hash out the cosmos or anything. He was on his way to dinner, I was on my way to Jack Herer's room for a sit-down.

I will always prize that picture.

He skipped on his hotel bill.
posted by timsteil at 8:47 PM on June 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Thanks, mister Leary, for being an irresponsible, self-aggrandizing fool, and ruining psychedelics for the rest of us.

Granted, he did some useful work early on, particularly with convicts and alcoholics. But then he went off the deep end advocated uncontrolled, unguided self-experimentation for the masses. There really was no point in history at which this would have been a good idea. Even cultures with a strong shamanistic tradition take their sacrament within a well-developed cultural context, with experienced priests guiding the ceremonies.

Leary's antics pretty much killed psychedelics as an area of serious research for DECADES. It's only within the last decade that psychedelics have lost some of their stigma, and you're starting to see things like Mr. Strassman's work and the psylocybe/OCD research.

Don't get me wrong - he was certainly no worse than the CIA, who opened the whole can of worms to begin with. But as a hero? Give me a break. Counterculture demagoguery does not a wise man make.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:11 PM on June 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

If my memory is correct, was the main site for all things Tim Leary, at least in the late 1990's. I seem to remember they had an unmoderated board for a while, but things quickly got out of hand. The site now seems to be nothing but a single text quotation and sound clip.

I met Leary shortly before he died; he had blue shag carpeting on his ceiling. My encounter was fairly profound, but I don't feel comfortable talking about it on the Internet.
posted by Tube at 11:13 PM on June 26, 2008

Thanks, mister Leary, for being an irresponsible, self-aggrandizing fool, and ruining psychedelics for the rest of us.

He was definitely an irresponsible, self-aggrandizing fool. However, he certainly didn't ruin psychedelics for me. Quite the opposite, in fact. If anything, he brought them to my attention. Without Leary, the psychedelic experience would have remained limited to a tiny elite. This stuff is too important to be taken by the likes of you and I, don't you know. We lack the intellectual capacity to process the experience. Or we need a shaman to guide our path.

Fuck that shit. I need a shaman to guide my dick into someone's mouth. The experience is just too powerful for me to process without a guide. Or better yet, why doesn't the shaman just guide my dick into his own mouth? It'll cut out any redundancy and shut the prattling retard up for the duration!

But then he went off the deep end advocated uncontrolled, unguided self-experimentation for the masses. There really was no point in history at which this would have been a good idea.

I disagree. I believe that the mass use of LSD played an important role in shaping the counterculture and subsequently in shifting the wider culture in ways that couldn't have been predicted and that would have been unlikely to happen otherwise.

Given what a relatively benign, safe substance LSD actually is, I find your advocacy of this kind of paternalistic, 'lets keep these powerful drugs in the hands of the real experts' to be somewhat peculiar. I claim the right to do whatever the fuck I want with my own brain, my own consciousness, and I utterly reject any paternalistic impulse that believes it knows best what I need. I believe that the militancy with which I and others insist on defending the right to experiment with our own consciousness is a major part of Leary's legacy.

And while Leary was a bit of an ass in his messianic, 'LSD will save the world' mode, blaming him for stopping psychedelics research is like blaming the village idiot for police corruption. It was the government who stopped the pursuit of psychedelics research, not Leary. His protelyzing might have been a catalyst for their fear, but if you really do believe you've discovered something that can save the world, would *you* shut up about it? I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't.

Leary was mapping uncharted territory. He can be forgiven if his boat occasionally ventured into the areas where dragons lay in wait.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:32 PM on June 26, 2008 [9 favorites]

I see Afroblanco's point. I think Leary's biggest error was minimizing the potential risk of psychedelics and the experiences they can create. I have no experience with LSD. But, I do have a little with mystical/ineffable experiences. Enough to know that it's nothing to be trifled with lightly. What I do , is only distantly related to the spiritual path. But close enough. And I took one solid look at that stuff and said, doing this alone, is dangerous and I'm not doing it. And at this stage in my life, I'm not looking to submit to a guru/shaman either.

Mystical experiences, without the right 'shape' or system to give them meaning, can drive people batshit insane. You can look up "qigong psychosis" for some interesting takes on that. I guess other cultures would refer to that as spiritual possession. There's some interesting stuff in Japanese culture about fox spirit possession. For example, certain classical martial arts also teach the practice of exorcism.

Leary was not exploring uncharted territory. Perhaps uncharted in European culture, though, I struggle to understand even that perspective, since William James had written on these topics during the late 19th century. However, even discounting the European tradition , there have been people all over Asia working and studying these kind of experiences for thousands of years. And there are _plenty_ of warnings about how hard you can get burned. That's my objection to Leary. He was irresponsible and did not adequately warn people of the very real dangers of opening up your brain and hitting the reset button, so to speak.

I have no problem with people deciding they want to dive into the deep end. Go for it. It's your soul. I have a problem with people misrepresenting the dangers to others.
posted by wuwei at 12:37 AM on June 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Glad to see my photo collection getting some traffic over on died a few months after Leary died due to family squabbling.

I know the guys and gals who were running it. Funds dried up and they
moved on.

Read yesterday tho, that Futique, Leary's estate is working with the folks
at the Internet Archive to host Tim's archives...and there are a lot. He
kept every thing.
posted by rmmcclay at 12:41 AM on June 27, 2008

"Think for yourself and questions authority."

Isn't that how one gets fired?
posted by dasheekeejones at 3:53 AM on June 27, 2008

"Think for yourself and questions authority."

Isn't that how one gets fired?

Only in places that don't hire Men.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 5:39 AM on June 27, 2008

Which is everywhere. Ain't nobody hiring Men. Or Women.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:43 AM on June 27, 2008

My experience is limited but I have had experiences with LSD and okay, the first time I tried it was in the context of a silly suburban party and I looked at a man with large, googly and incredibly bloodshot eyes and imagined that he was Loki (only because I was a bit obsessed with Douglas Adams' "Long Dark Teatime of the Soul" at the time) but I think that it's entirely possible to ingest the drug without being swept away into a void that only a guide or shaman could lead you out of. In fact, the people who were kind enough to have provided me with those lovely little tabs were not particularly deep and they used it to yahoo and have fun and get very silly indeed. My boyfriend at the time took one and, as he was in the midst of a terrible depression, had a particularly bad time one night which kind of harshed my own very silly buzz but it didn't stop me from appreciating the incredible beauty of an early morning thunderstorm during which I had the Ride of the Valkyries playing as the score (detecting a theme here?) and I wasn't lost in a psychedelic haze which never, ever ended (unlike the terrible experiences of several poor people as depicted in bad tv movies).

Like any drug (legal or illegal), what you get from it is, I believe, entirely dependent on context. Personally, I'd love to try it again under different circumstances because I think that the human brain is a deep, deep well and I can fully imagine that there are all kinds of ways that you could be guided into something very meaningful. Maybe that's when it gets very scary, I don't know. All I can say, anecdotally and speaking very much only for myself, is that LSD doesn't have to be boogy-woogy-ooh-I'm-A-Teapot-And-That's-All-I'm-Going-To-
Be-From-Now-On. Sometimes you just giggle inanely for hours and grind your teeth a bit and then you have trouble sleeping for the next day or so.

Having said that, however, lovely friends who will tell you that you are still you are always going to be very helpful and probably the best way to go if you're going to do it.

I always envied Timothy Leary and the whole 60's psychedelic thing because they did get some deeper meaning from it all. It's not necessarily going to happen, though.
posted by h00py at 5:58 AM on June 27, 2008

He sure was awfully into himself for a man who claimed to be all about ego death.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:54 AM on June 27, 2008

Recommended reading _ "Timothy Leary" by Robert Greenfield.
I'm on the younger edge of the whole counter culture thing and have oodles of experiences with all sorts of substances - I feel stongly about what altered states of consciousness can teach us.
Leary and cohorts were riding on the crest of a wave and they felt invincible, leaving a lot of destruction in their wake. The Leary crowd were the Eastern version of the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test crowd, if you were not "on the bus", then fuck you. Those that could not keep up were left behind.
I understand where they were coming from - the uncharted territory quality and the hubris that comes with being a celebrity. But the dosing of children with LSD was beyond the pale.
posted by readery at 10:11 AM on June 27, 2008

Oh, PeterMcDermott. So early on in the conversation, and yet already starting in with the dicksucking metaphors. My god, man, save something for later!

In any case, I'm not saying that psychedelics should be restricted to an "elite" or that everyone needs to have a shaman around when they're tripping. It's just that most people in this world should probably not take LSD. And those who do choose to take LSD should probably have some sort of guidance, at least for their first few times.

I don't see where you get off calling LSD "relatively benign and safe." LSD is a serious brain-change chemical, and is not to be trifled with! With all due respect, I get the feeling that you don't really know much of what you're talking about.

There's certainly nothing wrong with employing psychedelic drugs to achieve visionary states of consciousness. Humans have been doing that for millenia. But if you look at the cultures that do have a strong shamanistic tradition, you'll find that the psychedelics have a well-established place in their culture. There's a time and a place to do them, a way to do them, and a system of wisdom regarding them that has been passed down through the generations. They're not just happy-assholing "tuning-in and turning-on," and they sure as hell ain't "dropping out."

And while Leary certainly wasn't the only person who contributed to our culture's dysfunctional attitude toward psychedelics, he certainly played a large part. I understand that he was a product of his time, and that is why I don't mean to demonize him. But I certainly wouldn't call him a hero.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:02 PM on June 27, 2008

Leary was not exploring uncharted territory.

Sorry, I was unclear here. I was referring to the political territory Leary was exploring, not the consciousness stuff.

I don't see where you get off calling LSD "relatively benign and safe."

Well, as far as toxicity goes, I cant think of many seriously mind altering chemicals that are less toxic

LSD is a serious brain-change chemical, and is not to be trifled with!

And yet thousands and thousands of kids do so, every weekend, all over the world. The overwhelming majority of them, with little or no adverse effects. And have been doing so now for the last forty years or so.

With all due respect, I get the feeling that you don't really know much of what you're talking about.

Your right, maaaan. My third eye remains resolutely closed. Shit, nobody's pulled *that* one on me since 1970, AB. It's the stupid old hippy equivalent of Wesley Snipes' line to Woody Harrelson. Remember the one? You might listen to Jimi, but you can't really *hear* Jimi!

So early on in the conversation, and yet already starting in with the dicksucking metaphors.

Ah, yet another countercultural faux pas. I *knew* I should have consulted the Tibetan Book of the Blowjob before posting. Thanks for the tips.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:44 PM on June 27, 2008

You can look up "qigong psychosis" for some interesting takes on that.

I just did. Wikipedia has this to say about it:
Dr. Arthur Kleinman and Dr. Sing Lee from Harvard Medical School, researchers on various psychiatric topics in China, suggest that in international psychiatry this illness would be recognized as “…a specific type of brief reactive psychosis or as the precipitation of an underlying mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or posttraumatic stress disorder.”[11]
I don't think anyone has ever argued that LSD or any other psychedelics can't trigger psychiatric conditions in people who are predisposed towards them. I'm pretty sure the same thing is likely to be true for people pursuing other sorts of mystical experience as well.

But if you're the sort of person that's fearful of the possibility that this kind of thing may be a risk for you, then yes, leaving mind altering drugs, qigong, kung fu and or other mystical voodoo is probably a very good idea. I've been around such people in my youth, and they're a terrible nuisance.

But I also believe rational adults should be free to make their own choices around that stuff.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:04 PM on June 27, 2008

LSD: Because the inside is bigger than the outside.
posted by Goofyy at 4:56 AM on June 30, 2008

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