Leary and Ginsberg as psychedelic pioneers
Posted: January 26, 2011
"Turn on, tune in, drop out" was the phrase Timothy Leary coined to describe the path spiritual imbibers of LSD in the 1960s should take. But there was more to Leary than a catch phrase.
Leary's life, and his fruitful collaboration with the poet Allen Ginsberg, has been illuminated in Peter Conners' recent study, White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg, an engaging narrative which spans several decades, as well as the entire U.S., with side trips to Europe and North Africa.
When Ginsberg and Leary first met in 1960, Ginsberg was 34 years old and still riding the wave of fame and notoriety that followed in the wake of the publication of Howl in 1956 and the ensuing censorship trial. The poet had recently returned from the jungles of South America, where he had experienced the effects of yagé and other indigenous psychotropic drugs. Leary, at 40 years old, was just beginning his experiments with psilocybin as part of the Harvard Psilocybin Project. The professor had been lecturing in psychology at Harvard for a year, urging his students to abandon traditional Freudian approaches, which he felt alienated patient and therapist, and to embrace a more experiential, hands-on approach, which Leary came to call his "existential-transactional" theory.
Leary was convinced that hallucinogenic drugs, administered in controlled settings under the guidance of psychologists, could have beneficial effects not attainable by conventional therapeutic methods. Many of Leary's experiments had indeed provided what seemed like proof of his theories, but he was also met with significant resistance from the more conventional core of the academic community. What Leary needed to forward his psychedelic agenda was an articulate spokesman with important connections beyond the confines of academia. Leary was sure he'd found that person in Allen Ginsberg.
The Psychedelic Partnership
of Timothy Leary
and Allen Ginsberg
By Peter Conners
City Lights Books
But as much as they seemed to have in common, Leary and Ginsberg were also aware of their differences. Leary was still a relatively straight-laced Harvard professor versed in the jargon of clinical psychology, while Ginsberg was at the vanguard of the Beats, an openly gay poet and champion of the nonconformist and the dispossessed. Nonetheless, these two differing personalities went on to forge a symbiotic relationship as leaders of the psychedelic revolution, which proved to be a very wild ride indeed.
As his focus shifted from peyote to LSD, Leary was fired from Harvard and moved into the now-famous Millbrook estate. The scope of his "applied mysticism" took on all of contemporary society.
A rift gradually developed between Leary and Ginsberg, with Leary advocating his "Turn on, tune in, drop out" approach, while Ginsberg was more interested in forms of direct engagement.
In October 1968, LSD was declared illegal in the United States, and the following year the psychedelic '60s imploded in the grisly aftermath of Altamont and Charles Manson.
Despite moments of what could be perceived as profound wisdom, Leary definitely comes off as the most unsound character in a three-ring psychedelic circus. The fact that Leary became an informant for the FBI and eventually wound up on the "sing-for-your-supper" circuit in a stand-up comedy routine with his one-time arch-nemesis, Gordon G. Liddy, says a great deal about the man's state of mind.
In an age when virtually all drugs are recreational, it's fascinating to be taken back to a time when drugs were still considered important tools along the journey to self-discovery. In White Hand Society, Conners neither advocates nor opposes the use of drugs, nor does he belittle or criticize the efforts of Ginsberg and Leary. Instead, the author leaves it up to the reader to decide just how redeemable the idea of a psychedelic revolution actually was, or if such a thing was necessary or even possible. He also prompts speculation as to what might have happened if two entirely different leaders had been at the helm of this daring experiment.
It is not LSD that is the antagonist of this story, but rather the insatiable egos of the two protagonists, who proved to be the most counter-productive and destructive elements of the psychedelic movement.
But, as Jack Kerouac said to Leary during Kerouac's first psilocybin session, "Walking on water wasn't built in a day."
Mark Terrill can be reached at
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