Sunday, December 12, 2010

Timothy Leary's Dead

Longtime readers know that one of my biggest influences in my late teens and early 20s was Carlos Castaneda. Whether or not those stories are factual or not (and the general consensus seems to be on the "not"), to me they were genuinely magical in and of themselves. I learned a more important lesson in Castaneda's storytelling techniques than in anything Don Juan did or did not say. The books cast their own spells regardless of whether or not they were true accounts.

Though it was most certainly Jack Kirby where I first encountered the numinous power of the psychedelic storytelling mind - and its ability to insinuate itself in a young and impressionable reader's consciousness - it was Castaneda who first showed me how it could be done simply with the power of the written word. Maybe that's the power that every good writer wields, but it was Castaneda who really put me smack dab in the middle of the magical environment he was constructing. Not only did I believe every word, I experienced it.

Maybe the magic wore thin as the stories dragged out (well, more than maybe) but Tales of Power, The Eagle's Gift, A Separate Reality and The Teachings (of course) are still major touchstones for me.

Another life-changing book for me was Altered States by Paddy Chayefsky (the film of which Steve Willner gives us a taste in this video). It was so life-changing I even booked some time in an floatation tank. But in typical idiot fashion, I kept getting the god-damned salt water in my eyes (it stings like hell). But building or buying a decent isolation tank is still on my "things to do before I die" list. And the book also turned me onto the work of John Lilly, who we've discussed a lot around these parts as well.

Another huge influence on my younger brain was Timothy Leary. Not his 60s psychedelic preaching, ironically, but his evangelizing on behalf of the potentials of the Internet and virtual reality. Of course, virtual reality has yet to truly materialize, at least in the William Gibson sense. But it was an interview with Leary in the 20th Anniversary issue of Rolling Stone that turned me onto Gibson and the nascent cyberpunk movement.

Being primed for the experience by Cyberpunk novels and Leary lectures I can say first year on the Internet was itself a psychedelic experience. We're talking a lopey 2400 bps hayride straight to America Online (the Facebook of the 90s), but it was like a shot of liquid sky straight into my cerebral cortex. Maybe it was just the potential of it all I was buzzing on. But the first time I went online (sometime in September of '93, a pivotal month in my personal timeline) I saw my future.

Watch the Cyberpunk movement die before your eyes.

I basically figured out early on that VR was basically a way for a bunch of rich hippies to relieve some gullible investors out of boatloads of cash, using some ultra-basic CGI as a lure. Of course, the basic ideas behind VR fuel online gaming, but anyone who's read Mona Lisa Overdrive back in the 80s is surely gravely disappointed with what's on offer in 2008. I was also very excited about the Cyberpunk movement and was a huge fan of Mondo 2000, but if your subculture is accessible enough for Billy Idol to hitch his wagon to it, you know your basic operating philosophy is fundamentally flawed.

I went to see Leary chat up virtual reality a couple of times. At one talk at NYU, Robert Anton Wilson was his warmup act. I think RAW was very much on my wavelength here when he bemoaned serious work with hallucinogens giving way to what he called "the idiot drug revolution in the streets."

One thing a lot of do-it-yourself shamans -including Leary- didn't seem to understand is how rigorous and structured the ancient psychedelic traditions are, and how much sacrifice and suffering was called for. To Leary and his compadres, acid seemed to offer an instant shortcut around all of that. Instant shortcuts were very much part of that Space Age zeitgeist, something we've all learned to be more skeptical of today. Because without these tests and trials that we saw in the Mystery traditions, the psyche is ill-prepared to deal with the experiences and revelations that await (you know, like the bits that are implied but excised from the Dagobah scenes in The Empire Strikes Back). Once the Summer of Love ended, a lot of shattered psyches faced a long, cold winter.

I also blame Leary for being the man who popularized LSD, a drug most people aren't really equipped to deal with, and a drug that did as much- if not more- harm than good when it hit the street, cut with speed and strychnine and God knows what else. One of the healthiest trends in Entheogenic culture has been the move away from synthetic hallucinogens. Who the hell knows what the black magicians out there can sneak into those compounds today?

Alan Watts never singled out Leary in his lectures on the psychedelic experience, but it's clear he didn't approve of mainstreaming LSD or psychedelics in general. And -of course- the hidden hand of the Company is all over Leary's bio, a fact that a lot of his friends had a very hard time coming to terms with, including RAW. I want to think Leary was compromised and was cornered into a situation that forced his hand, but there's the problem of MK-Ultra lurking in the shadows here, no matter how ridiculously the program has been mythologized by Conspiranoids.

There is very good evidence that the original impetus behind the program was the belief- fostered mainly by Andrija Puharich- that psychedelics could create psychic spies and maybe even psychic assassins. As crazy as it might sound to some people today, that was the origin point of these programs. (Bruce Rux has put forward a fascinating argument that the Manchurian Candidate type of programs weren't based on Chinese techniques but the memory erasing reports put forward by alien abductees, reports that were above top secret at one point in time).

I don't think the Gottlieb boys knew from psychedelia - they were more concerned with developing neural weaponry. They saw themselves as heroes in a cosmic struggle with Communism, something we are far too easy to forget the overwhelming urgency of these days. When they eventually discovered that the effects of LSD are nearly impossible to predict, they moved on. Since then we've seen a parade of more demonically effective psychotropic pharmaceuticals, and no one is talking much about creating psychic spies anymore.

"Dream Machine" by Jack Kirby (click to enlarge)

Hallucinogens have been in the news a lot lately. There are serious efforts afoot to legalize medical (and non-medical) marijuana, and most importantly, doctors are rediscovering that hallucinogens are highly effective tools for therapy:
Hallucinogens may have gotten a bad rap since the 1960s as anything other than a source of amusement and cheap dream sequences, but according to The New York Times, a number of doctors around the country are seriously reconsidering psylocibin — the ‘magic mushroom’ hallucinogen — and other psychedelic drugs as a means of treating depression and addictive behavior, with a particular focus on the treatment of terminally ill patients.
A whole host of powerful neural tools were suppressed largely out of tangential political and cultural concerns, meaning that a bitter and destructive generational split in in the 1960s created a backlash against useful compounds that doctors and therapists should have had access to, as well as individuals and groups involved in serious research and exploration. That's the way it was in the early 60s, but something screwed it all up.

Unfortunately, Timothy Leary played a major part in the screwing.