He was initially known as an expert on personality assessment, but, while on a sojourn in Mexico the following year, he was introduced to psilocybin mushrooms, and the experience was so transformative that psychedelics promptly became the central force in his life, his research and his teaching....Teachers involving their students in spiritual exercises? Now, that is outrageous. But he lost his position as a Harvard professor soon enough.
It wasn't long before any pretense to scientific detachment fell away and controlled experiments were chucked in favor of missionary zeal and contempt for all mundane exigencies. Chaotic tripping parties ensued, involving students, under "spiritual" or "philosophical" pretexts.
[T]he psychedelic caravan picked up the Hitchcock siblings, Peggy, Billy and Tommy, heirs to the Mellon fortune, and through them acquired the use of a fabulous rambling house and huge estate in Millbrook, N.Y. This became the headquarters of Leary and gang for the better part of five years, a period filled with endless parties, epiphanies and breakdowns, emotional dramas of all sizes.... It was also at Millbrook that Leary, [Richard] Alpert and Ralph Metzner wrote "The Psychedelic Experience" (1964), which contained the injunction to "turn off your mind, relax, float downstream," appropriated two years later by John Lennon for "Tomorrow Never Knows," the last song on "Revolver."...Oh, that's painful to read! We Baby Boomers were steeped in this stuff -- whether we took LSD or not. I think it had much more impact than the SDS material that also soddened my generation.
[H]e had no interest in politics. He called student activists "young men with menopausal minds" and suggested that LSD could stand for "Let the State Disintegrate." But by 1968, his slogans were so poised between derangement and Madison Avenue that they could pass for visionary; "Everyone should start their own nation," he uttered, just days after Martin Luther King's assassination. It was awfully hard to tell charlatans from prophets at the time, and besides, the denatured, anti-intellectual language that dominated discourse then (and is still with us, in a New Age guise) had been rolling off Leary's tongue since before he had ingested a single microgram of lysergic acid: people engaged in emotional "games"; all the world's bad stuff was a "system"; the state of being clued-in was "consciousness," and so on.
Read the whole review. The plot of Leary's life is convoluted. At one point, he's in Algiers, in the care of Eldridge Cleaver. ("It was a new experience for me to be dependent on a strong, variable, sexually restless, charismatic leader who was insanely erratic. I usually played that role myself.") But it's this that makes me want to read the book:
[T]he book provides a crash course in several aspects of 60's culture: its often gaseous rhetoric, its reliance on mahatmas and soothsayers, its endless bail-fund benefits and sometimes dubious appeals to conscience, its thriving population of informers, its contribution to the well-being of lawyers, its candyland expectations and obstinate denials of reality, its fatal avoidance of critical thinking, its squalid death by its own hand. That still leaves many meritorious elements largely outside Leary's sphere: civil rights, the antiwar movement, music and art, the impulse toward communitarianism, to name a few. In part because of Leary, however, ideals and delusions were encouraged to interbreed, their living progeny being avid consumerism and toothless dissent.Turn off your mind, relax, float downstream....