DID ROBERT GREENFIELD DO HIS HOMEWORK?
I saw my therapist again yesterday. She asked me if I did my “homework.” Cognitive Behavioral Therapists love that word, “homework.” I hate that word. But who cares? She’s hot!
“Yes, I did.” My homework being to write for at least an hour, three times that week.
“Really? What did you work on?”
After much tsk-tsk-ing, I promised to actually write this week, and not just dick around on the internet. Of course, this summer at the height (low point) of my chronic medical-grade depression, my writing was virtually nonexistent. But I could read like a motherfucker, sometimes topping off five books a week. I knew that I was in trouble when I sat down on a Friday night with Robert Greenfield’s Timothy Leary: A Biography and looked up Sunday night to realize I had read all seven hundred pages!
The first exhaustive look at Leary, Greenfield’s book begins with a touching opening scene (where a young Timmy hides on the roof to escape from his drunken father), and ends on a note of righteous indignation. In between those two poles lay a phone book of vitriol. Greenfield obviously has some kind of searing hatred for Timothy Leary, which he may be too much of a gentleman to mention, but which nonetheless bleeds onto every page.
One could read the entire Greenfield book and think that Leary never had an original idea in his life… let alone author over thirty books (The Annotated Bibliography of Timothy Leary itself weighs in at over three hundred pages)! True, some of his work reads like mud, but even that stuff will yield gold if you were to dig in.
A HOLY MESS.
Timothy Leary’s unindicted co-conspirator Robert Anton Wilson writes in his book-length exploration of Leary’s theories, Prometheus Rising that the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, “was fundamentally naive and unaware of most of philosophy… she never realized that you cannot speak or write about the Ineffable. She therefore wrote about it at length. If her writings are hard to decipher, if they often sound like “the ravings of a disordered mind” (Aleister Crowley’s description of mystic writings, including his own), they also have moments of astonishing lucidity.”
Leary - who at times strikes me as willfully naive, in certain areas - was never unaware of philosophy. I think that, like Aleister Crowley, he assumed that everyone who read his work would be on his wavelength. Either that, or he just didn’t care.
And I think that the inability of many people to get anything meaningful out of his work, along with sheer scapegoating (let me ask you, Mr. Nixon; how does Leary, who you called “the most dangerous man in America,” compare to Vietnam?), has been at the root of Leary’s continued rough handling by the media.
Really, what did Leary expect? He was part of a tradition of neurological adepts, spelling out a philosophy that would appeal to a minority of people, a philosophy that would necessarily register as extremely dangerous to the vast majority of folks (er, “status quo”), and he was taking it the masses, pushing it right in their faces. Perhaps at first he was naive enough to think that the sheer beauty of his message would transform those who would hear it. And perhaps, by the time of the great backlash, he was too addicted to the media spotlight to let it go.
THE HIGH PRIEST AND THE GREAT BEAST.
It seems that in Robert Greenfield we have the same kind of biographer as John Symonds, author of The Great Beast: The life and magick of Aleister Crowley.
Israel Regardie, in The Eye In The Triangle: An interpretation of Aleister Crowley, had this to say about the Symonds book:
[Aleister Crowley] has too long suffered from misrepresentation at the hands of uninformed biographers. It is time finally to set the record straight. This must be done, not merely out of regard for the man himself, but even more importantly, because of the profound effect he has had on countless thousands of readers, and will yet have on countless thousands more.
John Symonds, his major biographer, evinces throughout his narrative a totally contemptuous attitude towards Crowley. This attitude altogether invalidates his attempt at biography. His book The Great Beast could have been excellent since every opportunity in the world was given him through access to diaries and a mass of hitherto unpublished material… However his personal prejudices got in the way. His writing is cynical, showing no glimmer of insight or the slightest trace of sympathy.
Timothy Leary considered himself, after a fashion, to be a reincarnation of Crowley, so it is quite fitting that the above excerpt could just as easily been written about Greenfield’s book.
I HAVE AMERICA SURROUNDED.
I have read an excerpt of the other Tim Leary book, I Have America Surrounded: The life of Timothy Leary by John Higgs. If anything, his account promises to be more fair, and a hell of a lot more fun.
FORGOTTEN BUT NOT GONE.
We sometimes disagreed, but in the end we made our peace…
He is forgotten now but not gone.
The first time I read this ten years ago I really had no idea what the hell Thompson was talking about; but after his suicide it began to make sense for me. With his final act Thompson was released. His legacy became part of all of our legacy.
And so it goes with Timothy Leary. Perhaps the question is not: who was Timothy Leary? Perhaps we should be asking ourselves what he had to teach us… because I have found his work to be endlessly entertaining and inspiring and every time I open one of his books, or hear an old radio interview or seem him on the television, I learn something new.
So, will the legacy of Timothy Leary be that of a defrocked Harvard Professor, a lousy parent and bad actor? Or will it be that of a philosopher and a teacher, a rebel in the grand tradition? Because he will be with us always. That genie has been unleashed. The only question now is, which Timothy Leary will we remember… or which will we forget?
Or, as Tim himself used to say, “everyone will get the Timothy Leary they deserve.”
10 years since Timothy Leary’s death by Joi Ito is a poignant look at Leary’s last days.
John Higgs’ book, I Have America Surrounded, is now available in the US. Be sure to check out Higgs’ blog, here. “The High Priest and the Great Beast,” an excerpt from I Have America Surrounded, can be found in the March, 2006 issue of Sub Rosa, available here.
Robert Greenfield’s book, Timothy Leary: a biography, is published by Harcourt.