Sometimes the Wednesday Mini Book Review appears on Friday. Why? No one knows.
A tasty panoply of past mini book reviews.
I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary, by John Higgs (Barricade Books, 2006). Timothy Leary is a 20th-century American character who suffered, until 2006, perhaps the most skewed ratio of importance to biographical attention of anyone I can think of. In 2006, he got both the doorstop major publisher slash-and-burn from Robert Greenfield (reviewed by Nick Gillespie in the Washington Post and Jesse Walker in American Conservative) and this thinner, but more sympathetic and idiosyncratic, take, from a more obscure house, which got almost no attention from anyone.
Higgs, a British documentarian, gets the basic story down—a story, as many have rightly noted, that would be unbelievably baroque and absurd for a novelist. Higgs is also better, and more sympathetic, on Leary’s intellectual and cultural significance than was Greenfield, even in about half the wordage.
The Leary that interests Higgs the most is the post-prison break Leary of the early 1970s, living an alternately harrowing and decadent life in exile with Eldridge Cleaver in Morocco and Michel Hauchard in Switzerland, until the Feds kidnapped him in Afghanistan. It takes Higgs only 107 pages to get Leary to the point where he’s over the wall of the California Men’s Colony at San Luis Obispo, and the narrative gets much thicker from there. (The book’s main text weighs in at 274 pages.)
Before then Higgs has dutifully, though entertainingly (it’s certainly a hard story to make boring) hit the high points of the life of Leary: the rogue with his troubled West Point and collegiate career; his innovations in, and growing dissatisfactions with, psychological classification and testing methods and his explorations in interpersonal/transactional psych as an on-the-rise star in what could be seen as the Psychological Decade of the 1950s; his troubled first marriage that ended in his wife’s suicide; his dogged pursuit, against the advice of his more prudent co-conspirators, of a gleefully populist approach to the spread and study of psychedelics; the madness of his psychedelic training camp at Millbrook; his self-recasting as religious guru; the arrests and gubernatorial campaign.
It seems inevitable that this reckless scamp is gonna end up in jail; and equally inevitable that he’ll escape. Leary made himself feel better about being in jail by deciding that all truly successful philosophers face state punishment as a common occupational hazard. He’d lie back and think of Socrates.
An interesting interpretive take on Leary, not taken up by Higgs, is how perfectly trendy and emblematic of the classic version of every American decade Leary’s life tended to be, from West Point (he was booted out) and World War II to ex-soldier boy turned egghead college boy in the ‘40s; suburban angst wife-swapping psychological Organization Man-controller in the ‘50s ended up at Harvard; drug guru revolutionary in the ‘60s; ‘60s hangover refugee turned Me Decade jail bird snitch in the ‘70s; coke party Hollywood sub-celeb in the ‘80s; avatar of the computer revolution in the ‘90s. It’s a theory I don’t have time to expound on here myself but I think a fruitful one in Leary Studies.
Higgs is especially taken with Leary’s ‘70s-exile strange intellectual partnership with occult devotee and researcher Brian Barritt, a very interesting figure who Higgs, clearly fascinated with more than most other writers (Barritt gets two whole chapters in this book), makes a grand case for as biography-bait of his own. Higgs makes perhaps too large a case for Barritt as a shaper of Leary’s thought from then on, in his “eight-circuit brain/SMI2LE” days, though further research is certainly warranted. I am glad that this book has more info on Leary’s curious and wonderful collaborative LP with Ash Ra Tempel than I’ve found elsewhere.
Leary was a man whose importance, while subterranean, is vast—and it underlies, in that subterranean way, a lot of what was interesting in American culture in the second half of the 20th century, a historical league in which baseball obsessive Leary could be well considered an MVP, though a controversial and truculent one. I Have America Surrounded is a good book; anyone interested in Leary beyond seeing him traduced will be sure to enjoy it, if not love it.
But I still dream of a biography of Leary by a writer ready and able, and with the space, to dig deep into his work and standing as an important psychologist in the 1950s before that fateful day in Mexico in 1960 that he ate psychedelic mushrooms and the Timothy Leary the rest of the world came to know was born; a writer who is learned in and able to position Leary vis a vis all his influences and all the roles he played, all the figures he interacted with and emulated or needs to be understood in terms of, all the Sullivans and Szaszs, the Huxleys and Hollingsheads, the Hoffmans and Dohrns, the Gurdjieffs and Crowleys, the Wilsons and O’Neills, all the fancies and positions this self-consciously trendy philosophical polemicist (a far better description of his role from 1961 on than scientist or scholar) Leary played with. Leary was also, which both Greenfield and Higgs note but neither makes much of, an advocate of libertarianism—alas, not as successful an advocate as he was of psychedelics.
A random bloggy aside: Dr. Leary and I talk about food.