Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Timothy Leary: Back In The Mainstream

Timothy Leary: Back In The Mainstream: "
Leary at peace rally with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Photo: Roy Kerwood (CC)

Leary recording 'Give Peace a Chance' with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Photo: Roy Kerwood (CC)

He may have turned on, tuned in and dropped out, losing his post as a Harvard professor and instead becoming an icon of ’60s counterculture, but Timothy Leary has finally (and posthumously) made it back into the mainstream. The New Yorker details the acquisition of his archives by the New York Public Library:

Sitting in a storage complex in Long Island City, waiting to be sorted and processed, are several hundred boxes that make up the complete archive of Dr. Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist turned fugitive drug propagandist. The material was recently acquired from Leary’s estate by the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library, whose collection includes Mesopotamian clay tablets from the third millennium B.C.; documents from America’s founding, including a handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson; letters and manuscripts by Hawthorne, Melville, Mencken; the papers of Fiorello LaGuardia and Robert Moses; and the archives of this magazine.

Against this eminent backdrop, Leary, who was labeled by Richard Nixon (albeit with some hyperbole) “the most dangerous man in America,” seems an odd fit. His notoriety began with his controversial stewardship of the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which in 1960 commenced a series of experiments into the effects and therapeutic potential of hallucinogens. The increasingly loose and unorthodox methodology of this analysis virtually eliminated the distinction between experimenter and subject, and Leary’s handling of the drugs was cavalier, to say the least. “Would you be willing to meet this guy for a drink, size him up and then if you think he is a swinger, make arrangements to give him mushrooms?” he wrote to a colleague in 1961. “As a pharmacist he might teach us a lot.” Allen Ginsberg took notice, and initiated Leary into the cultural cognoscenti. They gave psilocybin to Robert Lowell (to no great effect), and before long Ginsberg was writing Leary to ask, “Do you want I should take on Monk or Franz Kline or De Kooning?”

The project’s lack of discretion and diminishing credibility aroused the ire of the Harvard faculty and student body, resulting in a dispute over its merits that wound up in the pages of the Harvard Crimson and then the national press. By the end of the year, the university had shuttered the project. Defiant, Leary and his chief collaborator, Richard Alpert, defended their work in a letter to the Crimson. “A major civil liberties issue of the next decade will be the control and expansion of consciousness,” they declared. “Who controls your cortex? Who decides on the range and limits of your awareness? If you want to research your own nervous system, expand your consciousness, who is to decide that you can’t and why?” Both were soon out of a job…

[continues in the New Yorker]


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