June 24, 2006

"Turn off your mind, relax, float downstream."

Luc Sante reviews Robert Greenfield's new biography of Timothy Leary:
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....

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.
Teachers involving their students in spiritual exercises? Now, that is outrageous. But he lost his position as a Harvard professor soon enough.
[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."...

[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.
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.

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....


Palladian said...

"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."

With the exception of civil rights, are any of those things "meritorious"? The "anti-war" movement, which sealed the fate of over a million people in the killing fields and continues its "moral" crusade of abandonment and surrender to this day? Communitarianism which led to such notably peaceful and productive microsocieties as Jonestown? Music and art, which were largely abandoned, not invented, with the demise of the sixties?

Some would say that these things, many of them perfect examples of the "gaseous rhetoric" and "candyland expectations and obstinate denials of reality" and "fatal avoidance of critical thinking" are the truly pernicious legacy of the sixties.

Squalid death, indeed.

Bissage said...

"We Baby Boomers were steeped in this stuff -- whether we took LSD or not."

So were we: Those of us younger, at a very impressionable age, who looked up to the Baby Boomers.

In our pajamas we were allowed to stay up late and we sat on the floor and we watched television and we saw a story about a boy and his dog. And there was music for us that had flowed downstream.

It would be years before we would have a copy of "Revolver" to call our own.

Word Verification: urbdcnsng

(Okay. I just made that up.)

Gordon Freece said...

Now, wait a minute. Even if "sodden" were a verb, it wouldn't be transitive.

Maybe "besot"?


I won't argue about art (though in my view Roy Lichtenstein was less worthless than Jackson Pollock), but music? That is very highly debatable.

Wouldn't trade a dead cat for Nilsson, though.

Ann Althouse said...

Palladian: Very trenchant.

Bissage: I always felt sorry for you 70s kids. And at first I thought you meant this.

Ann Althouse said...

P: I thought a lot about that usage. Read this and explain why you think I'm wrong.

Ann Althouse said...

I considered "besotted," but the root there is about stupidity not wetness, which is what I wanted. "Sodden" has a root that means "boiled" -- it goes with "steeped." This was massively intentional.

KCFleming said...

What a long strange mess the 60s created.

Really, isn't it about time for the 60s to say, "sorry about last night", and clean up after themselves?

Bissage said...

I saw "A Boy and His Dog" at one of those second-run houses (remember those?) for a buck-fifty or two bucks or something. I didn't think it was all that great a movie but I liked the dog and I absolutely howled at that scene where the protagonist-guy thinks he's hit the bigtime only to find himself at the wrong end of a milking machine.

Years later I would become horrified to learn that the "Miami Vice" Don Johnson I loathed was the very same guy I had felt so sorry for.

Go figure.

Ann Althouse said...

"What a long strange mess the 60s created..."

Yeah, my entire life.

I don't see as how I get a do over.

Gordon Freece said...


"To make or become sodden", it says. Yep, transitive and all.

Oops. Mea culpa.

I still find it jarring. But I still don't have another word that'll do the job. Even if "besot" had once connoted wetness, it doesn't now. Maybe "besoddened", which even the OED won't countenance, but what do they know?

"Besmottered" is totally cool, but it's got nothing to do with saturation.

Brent said...

His life was certainly a remarkable one with events ranging from an Ivy League profession to jail break to an unusual electronic madhouse lecture circuit... what I remember most about him though was reading this about his 'death diet': he has been sticking to a daily diet which includes, he says, 44 cigarettes; three cups of coffee; one beer; two glasses of wine; one cookie; one marijuana joint; one Tylenol PM; two prescription pain pills; 12 balloons of nitrous oxide (laughing gas); and three "Leary biscuits" - Ritz crackers topped with cheese and marijuana..... The rest can be looked up.

Gordon Freece said...

Or beschmatta'd.

XWL said...

"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."

After reading that bit, I can't help but think that the reviewer inadvertently came up with perfect definition of the left today.

There are still too many folks (especially academic-types) who drink far too deeply from that foul well of wretched ideas.

The other thought I have is what if the reviewer writes in a far better and more engaging style than the original author?

Luc Sante writes well, but just because he found the book engaging and waxes eloquently about the book, doesn't mean the book is eloquent in its own right.

Has anyone out there been convinced to watch a film or read a book based on a dazzling review, only to realize the reviewer displayed more artistry in describing the work than the work itself had?

Wickedpinto said...

The MIND of the 60's was BRILLIANT.

SFF, was an AWESOME song.

In the metaphorical art of translation, musicians found a real truth, often a truth that they didn't realize they agreed with.

The Stones were SO conservative, in truth, though they didn't realize it, Dylan as well, Croce' (Jim Croce' in my opinion is the BEST BEST singer song writer of all time, the guy had 3 commercial albums, with a 4 almbum Best off, and you could listen to EVERY SINGLE FRIGGEN SONG!!!!!!!")

I love Jim Croce'

My point, when the "artists" are actually artistic, they tend to confound their own opinons, I base this on an ignorance of their REAL political stances, or just general ignorance, though I think that is a broad judgement.

Beth said...

Bissage, Soul Asylum has a song that speaks to our generation, the younger brothers and sisters:

And we were too young to be hippies
Missed out on the love
Turned to a teen in the late 70s
In the summer of the drugs

I never had any reason to care about Leary. By the time I was encountering LSD in my school and community, I think we saw Leary as pretentious, like one of those leering high school teachers who'd try to get us high school girls stoned and play his his Stones albums. And I was reading Baba Rum Raisin in National Lampoon long before I know who Baba Ram Dass was, and why he was worth satirizing. Be Here Now!

Eli Blake said...

Palladian: The anti-war movement saved the lives of thousands more American servicemen who were bogged down in an unwinnable guerilla war. Even Richard Nixon could see that, and deserves the credit for getting us out. So I take it that you would have stayed there and lost more troops?

I've always said that I was too young to worry about going to Vietnam (though I very much grew up in the 1960's), but if I'd been old enough, I'd have burned my draft card. Publically announcing today that I'd have done that then is as close as I can come to joining the 1960's anti-war movement.

Also-- those who fail to learn their history are condemned to repeat it. True in life as well as in college. We see the same kind of situation today, with George Bush's urging to 'stay the course' eerily reminiscent of some of the things LBJ said. The best hope for peace in Iraq is something like the amnesty that they are working on now, but one reason for that is because it sets a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops while integrating the insurgents back into the general populace with no retaliation.

Jeff with one 'f' said...

For an understanding of 70's childhood, see this.

Gordon Freece said...


"Condemned to repeat it"? Condemned to repeat which part of it? Whichever part Eli Blake assigns them. That means it has to be something he's familiar with.

But what if (hypothetically, of course) there were a higher authority in the universe than Eli Blake? What then?

Mr. Forward said...

I did burn my draft card and consider it one of the most shameful things I ever did. I bet I'm not the only one that feels that way.

David said...

Eli's Coming!

Nice try, Son! The war in Viet Nam was won militarily. What the card burners, campus occupiers, and peace/love/dove group did was hand Giap a political victory which trumped the military victory.

From that sorry debacle to the present, the shame of America has been the question of it's ability to stay the course/persevere.

Part and parcel of that legacy is the current situation in Iraq. The Iraqi's, particularly the Kurds, have real doubts about throwing in with the Americans because of the cut-and-run politics of the anti-war left. Would you turn on the thugs in your neighborhood if your protector was capable of leaving you unprotected or protected from a distance (Murtha's Okinawa)?

Trust is fragile. The trust in America was fractured by our shameful abandonement of our Viet Namese allies and our abandonement of the Kurds during GW1.

War is not a 30 minute sitcom designed for self-indulgent narcissists who have the attention span of a cup of latte. Reality never dissipates in the swirling smoke from a bong or hooka pipe. It is briefly distorted but always there to greet you when you sober up.

Run away from it or face up to it. The choice is yours!

KCFleming said...

I am surprised no one's yet mentioned the Moody Blues Legend Of A Mind:

Timothy Learys dead.
No, no, no, no, hes outside looking in.
Hell fly his astral plane,
Takes you trips around the bay,
Brings you back the same day
, etc., etc.

Like "Tomorrow Never Knows", it's a song I love to hear every once in awhile. I can't say whether it captures a drug experience, or whether it's better heard during one, but the states of candyland and denial are made most appealing.

me said...

The 60s are both overrated and unappreciated at the same time. On one level, it was just an excuse to get laid. However, there were some profound artistic and political movements.

Did the experiment ultimately fail? Yes.

But don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

dick said...

Problem is there is so much bath water and so little baby. Funny to see how many of the 60's generation are still trying to justify themselves 40 years later. If all their truths were so self-evident, then they should not have to justify it now, but they still do. Guess their truths were not truths?

At what point can we just tell them to get over themselves and live now???

Gordon Freece said...

"He who forgets all of history but Vietnam is condemned to accuse everybody of repeating it."

Chills me to the very marrow, that does.

ignacio said...

One problem with those who congratulate themselves over "stopping" the war in Vietnam is that they rarely have any interest in the actual Vietnamese. They conveniently forget about, or are ignorant of, "Vietnamization," which meant that by 1973 the South Vietnamese were fighting the North Vietnamese army straight up, with reasonable success.

But the North Vietnamese were armed by and heavily subsidized by both the Soviet Union and the Chinese. Where the U.S. betrayed the South Vietnamese was when Congress voted to cut off all aid.

Thereafter it became a dramatically unfair fight.

To those who are interested, they might try actually reading memoirs and histories and novels by Vietnamese, both North and South. "In the Jaws of History" by Bui Diem (who was once a student of General Giap in Hanoi) might be one place to start.

Sure, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Jane Fonda, etcetera, are more attractive figures than LBJ, Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, or the military idiots as stereotyped in a film like "Dr Strangelove." But this only speaks to what was going on in the USA.

What about was what was actually going on in Vietnam?

Gary F said...

I'm not a big anti-drug guy, but if I recall correctly from my college days (having a professor good enough to present all sorts of original source material), Leary was doing some very clever work in personality theory, which he never finished what with becoming a wacko and all.