Two interpretations of Timothy Leary

(Originally appeared in The Final Incident (2009), edited by Joseph L. Flatley, Jesse Hicks, and Matt Stroud.)

The first exhaustive look at Leary, Timothy Leary: A Biography by Robert Greenfield, begins on a poignant note, where the young Leary hides on the roof to escape from his drunken father; and it ends on a note of righteous indignation. In between those two poles lay a phone book’s worth of vitriol. Greenfield obviously has some kind of searing hatred for Timothy Leary, which he may be too much of a gentleman to mention, but which nonetheless bleeds onto every page.

One could read the entire Greenfield book and think that Leary never had an original idea in his life, let alone author over thirty books. The Annotated Bibliography of Timothy Leary itself weighs in at over three hundred pages! True, some of Leary’s work can be difficult — and not in the good way; but even that stuff will often teach you something if you let it.

Timothy Leary’s unindicted co-conspirator Robert Anton Wilson writes in his book-length exploration of Leary’s theories, Prometheus Rising, that Mary Baker Eddy “was fundamentally naive and unaware of most of philosophy… she never realized that you cannot speak or write about the Ineffable. She therefore wrote about it at length. If her writings are hard to decipher, if they often sound like “the ravings of a disordered mind” (Aleister Crowley’s description of mystic writings, including his own), they also have moments of astonishing lucidity.”

Leary — who at times strikes me as willfully naive, was never unaware of philosophy. I think that, like Aleister Crowley, he assumed that everyone who read his work would be on his wavelength. Either that, or maybe he just didn’t care if they were or not.

I think that the inability of many people to get anything meaningful out of Leary’s work, along with sheer scapegoating (let me ask you, Mr. Nixon; how does Leary, who you called “the most dangerous man in America,” compare to Vietnam?) has been at the root of his continued rough handling by the world.

And really, what did Leary expect? He was part of a tradition of neurological adepts, spelling out a philosophy that would appeal to a minority of people, a philosophy that would register as extremely dangerous to the vast majority of folks, and he was taking it the masses, pushing it right in their faces. Perhaps at first he was naive enough to think that the sheer beauty of his message would transform those who would hear it. And perhaps, by the time of The Great Backlash, he was too addicted to the media spotlight to let it go. Or maybe it’s possible that he needed The Fame as much as he needed to share The Truth.

If anyone contained multitudes, it was this man.

***

It seems that in Robert Greenfield we have the same kind of biographer as John Symonds, author of The Great Beast: The Life and Magick of Aleister Crowley.

Israel Regardie, in The Eye In The Triangle: An Interpretation of Aleister Crowley, had this to say about the Symonds book:

[Aleister Crowley] has too long suffered from misrepresentation at the hands of uninformed biographers. It is time finally to set the record straight. This must be done, not merely out of regard for the man himself, but even more importantly, because of the profound effect he has had on countless thousands of readers, and will yet have on countless thousands more.
John Symonds, his major biographer, evinces throughout his narrative a totally contemptuous attitude towards Crowley. This attitude altogether invalidates his attempt at biography. His book The Great Beast could have been excellent since every opportunity in the world was given him through access to diaries and a mass of hitherto unpublished material… However his personal prejudices got in the way. His writing is cynical, showing no glimmer of insight or the slightest trace of sympathy.

Timothy Leary considered himself, after a fashion, to be a reincarnation of Crowley, so it is quite fitting that the above excerpt could just as easily been written about Greenfield’s book.

And then there is the other Timothy Leary book, I Have America Surrounded by John Higgs. Higgs writes as an insider: someone for whom Magick, LSD, and Krautrock are every bit as natural as police reports and hurt feelings are to Greenfield. The book is less encyclopedic than Greenfield’s, but far more balanced. And it’s one hell of a story, an American story, and a story that only gets more amusing, and that makes more sense, as we increasingly find ourselves in the future that Leary was describing before many of us were born.

***

Where does that leave the Timothy Leary legacy?

In his Rolling Stone obituary, “Mistah Leary — He Dead,” Hunter S. Thompson puts it like this:

We sometimes disagreed, but in the end we made our peace…
He is forgotten now but not gone.

The first time I read this well over ten years ago I really had no idea what the hell Thompson was talking about; but after his suicide it began to make sense for me. With his final act, Thompson was released. His legacy became a part of all of us.

And so it goes with Timothy Leary. Perhaps the question is not: who was Timothy Leary? Perhaps we should be asking ourselves what he had to teach us.

I have found Leary’s work to be endlessly entertaining and inspiring, and every time I open one of his books, or hear an old radio interview, or seem him on the television, I learn something new.

Will the legacy of Timothy Leary be that of a defrocked Harvard professor, a fugitive prisoner, or an inconsistent parent? Or will it be that of a philosopher and a teacher, a rebel in the grand tradition? Because Timothy Leary will be with us always. The genie has been unleashed. The only question now is: Which Timothy Leary will we remember, and which will we dismiss?

Or, as the man himself once said, “Everybody gets the Timothy Leary that they deserve.”

Timothy Leary: A Biography by Robert Greenfield
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 704 pages
I Have America Surrounded: A Biography of Timothy Leary by John Higgs
Barricade Books; 320 pages