Saturday, June 17, 2006

Remembering Leary

I've had an on again/off again obsession with Timothy Leary ever since his book Design for Dying came out.

He was a brilliant man, if somewhat misguided and charmed by the cult of celebrity from time to time. What many often forget is that his early experiments with LSD were meant for rehabilition of prison inmates and were financially supported by the feds. There was nothing in Leary's mind so much as the advancement of humanity. Even after LSD and other drugs turned out not to be the panacea he hoped for he still clung to a firm belief that techology and science would, one day, save us all. So it's no suprise that when the 80's rolled around he focused more on computer technologies and space exploration and started hanging out with like-minded folk like R.U. Sirius. He dreamed of a day that everyone could plug directly into a computer and have direct access to every bit of information ever written, proved or even dreamed of. Certainly many, maybe even most, of his ideas are dated but his general sentiment of always looking forward is something that I wish more people would adopt.

Nick Gillespie just reviewed the new bio on him by Robert Greenfield for the Washington Post. Quoting here:

The biographer seems far more interested in deconstructing his subject's voluminous self-serving assertions over the years than in explaining his enduring significance to hippies, straights and cyberpunks alike. In a real way, Leary helped conjure not only the '60s counterculture but the '90s high-tech counterculture, too. A clear theme of individual fulfillment runs through all of his thought, and it's a shame that Greenfield didn't discuss his ideas more seriously, much less put them in a richer social and intellectual context. "Someone told me," Greenfield writes, " 'Those who love Timothy Leary will hate your book. And those who hated him will never read it.' " That's about right, and it reflects poorly on Greenfield's framing of the material. While his account of Leary's "most improbable life" is a fascinating read, that has more to do with subject matter that would make Philip Roth jealous than with the perspective Greenfield brings to it all.

It's unfortunate, because there are few icons out there as misunderstood and misrepresented in the public memory as Leary. Most people associate him solely with LSD and picture as some hipster doofus of a mad scientist handing out acid tabs to William S. Burroughs and Ornette Coleman at a pool party that would make Hugh Hefner question his own morals. And while those kinds of things happened, it's only a small part of Leary's story. It's been long enough that a serious, thoughtful and objective treatment of his life come together. But it doesn't appear to be this book. As an alternative, Leary's own autobiography, although a bit pompous, is a wonderful introduction to his ideas and persona. At points it's very thoughtful and often quite funny.


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