Sunday, June 2, 2013

New Leary Biography

Thanks to the always brilliant RAW Illumination blog  I recently turned on and tuned in to this excellent new biography of Timothy Leary by R.U. Sirius.  It's a concise, insider's account of the good doctor's life and work told by someone who can give an unqualified "yes" to the question "are you experienced?" in regard to the subject matter.  I don't just mean psychedelic experimentation which inexperienced mainstream media has branded Leary with, but the whole gamut of consciousness raising techniques and attitudes that characterized his colorful career.  Sirius had both a professional and friendly relationship with Leary and has an ongoing connection with his estate.  Of the two other Leary biographer's I'm aware of, Robert Greenfield and John Higgs, Sirius seems to have known Leary the best.  However, he doesn't come across as a disciple or syncophant, but gives a mostly objective, sometimes critical rendering of his life and times.

The book is very well written, and meticulously researched.  Refreshingly unencumbered by psychological interpretation and personal judgement, Timothy Leary's Trip Thru Time covers all the salient points with just enough detail to provide context and accurately inform.  Like other notable people mentioned in the book, I regarded Leary as the most intelligent person I knew on this planet and therefore read everything I could find by and about him.  Thus, I was expecting TLTTT to be a rehash of events already known to me but was delightfully surprised to discover new pieces of the puzzle that made up the enigmatic Dr. Leary.  For instance, the much mythologized first meeting of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters with the Leary crowd reveals a new detail that puts it in a much clearer light.  Other versions of this story seem to tell more about the author's or someone's bias than the actual meeting.  It's tidbits like this one and several others that make this a valuable and worthwhile read even to the hardcore Leary cognoscenti.

On the other hand, this is the biography to read if someone knows nothing about Timothy Leary apart from his popular, often misrepresented image given in mainstream media.  All of the bases are covered here.  However, to flesh out the picture, I highly recommend reading the other two biographies, as well.  I Have America Surrounded by John Higgs gives a sympathetic, sometimes empathic presentation of Leary's life without shying away from some of the darker aspects.  Timothy Leary: A Biography by Robert Greenfield, though also well written, often comes across as a butcherous hack job by someone who clearly appears jealous and envious of his subject and so feels the need to put him down as much as possible.  It reminds me of John Symond's biography of Aleister Crowley, The Great Beast.  Yet, Greenfield's bio has much useful material when sifting out his bias.  Toward the end of TLTTT Sirius accurately points out the flaws in Greenfield's book but also acknowledges his debt to it.

Other useful biographical material comes from the man himself.  Flashbacks, Leary's autobiography, reads as a colorful, sometimes allegorically coded adventurous romp through his life.  Another valuable source is Leary's book High Priest which chronicles the early years of his psychedelic research.  What Does WoMan Want? contains autobiographical accounts of his life on the lam in Europe after he escaped from prison.

A great feature of TLTTT is the listing of (as far as I can tell) all of the good Doctor's books in chronological order, and the context they were composed in.  The set and setting, as it were.  Sirius also provides some dosage quoting, sometimes extensively, relevant passages from Leary's writings to back up his points.  This material, coming straight from the horse's mouth, really sharpens the  focus for me infusing the book with esprit de Tim, his mastery of language, and sharp wit.

Other highlights new to me include a sober analysis of Leary's dealings with the Feds when trying to get out of jail the second time and a look at the question of exactly who got hurt by the information he gave to secure his release.  To me, it reads as a cat and mouse game ala Tom and Jerry.

The importance of Leary's pre-psychedelic researches into the human psyche and how that influenced his later work gets described then succinctly summed up by Sirius with this:

Those familiar with Leary’s later theories will note that he was already concerned with what he believed was the robotic unconscious nature of most human activities and was searching for ways to help people be more conscious.

The anecdote describing Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky's initial psylocibin session and what resulted from it is priceless.

Also new to me is the suggestion by Lama Govinda during Leary's visit to India to illustrate the correspondences between various mystical systems such as Qabalah, tarot, the I Ching, astrology etc. with levels of consciousness.  This would eventually result in his 8 circuit model of consciousness outlined in his books The Game of Life and Exo Psychology.  Robert Anton Wilson and Antero Alli are among those who have been deeply influenced by it, and who have popularized this model.

R.U. points out that Dr. Tim came up with some great slogans for Higher Consciousness that have endured beyond his death.  Think for Yourself, Question Authority devised during his latter period continues to inspire many a free-thinking individual.

It's also mentioned that the terms set and setting, from the phrase set, setting, and dosage was conceived  pre-psychedelia.  The point being that Leary's focus was on raising consciousness not on randomly taking a lot of drugs.  Most, if not all psychedelic gurus urge people to act responsibly in this area, and to combine their researches with more conventional techniques such as yoga and meditation.  They also seem to agree that it's far better to reach the enlightened state without taking drugs.  William S. Burroughs writes poignantly and wistfully of a character toward the end of Cities of the Red Light who heroically reached the pinnacle of consciousness without drugs.  John Lilly gives the same advice in one of his books.

I don't know if Leary would agree with the above advice, but it's evident in his later work as shown in TLTTT that he moved beyond drugs as a primary tool focusing on virtual reality technology and interactive computer software.  In 1990 when I asked Dr. Leary how I could get a job in his line of work, ie as a "cheerleader for change" (another of his slogans that stuck with me) he at first replied that he didn't know but that if I ever found out that I should let him know.  Then he asked me if I owned a computer.

TLTTT also describes Leary predicting the internet years before it happened saying how it would empower the individual.

Sirius confronts head on Leary's most controversial slogan  Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out which got misinterpreted in popular opinion as take a lot of drugs and slack off.  A quote from Flashbacks shows his genuine intent behind this statement.  It's mentioned in TLTTT that this slogan has been used and continues to be used in a variety of other contexts.

In one of the computer gaming Prosperity Path orbs designed by E.J Gold and his team, when activating a biofeedback device simulation you get a message: Your Super Beacon is turned on, tuned into Matrix and dropped out of phase factor. 

R.U. Sirius' personal history with Timothy Leary seems to date back to at least the mid 1980's which probably partially explains why the book is so well informed especially in the latter years.  To my mind Sirius rates as one of the most influential counter-cultural editor/publishers of the late 20th/early 21st Centuries.  Right up there with Paul Krassner.

I first discovered his work in the underground High Frontiers magazine, published infrequently it seemed, but overflowing with great nonacademic articles and interviews on the cutting edge of consciousness tools and techniques.  It was like finding a buried treasure.  One issue carried an excellent interview with Leary.  Robert Anton Wilson had a strong presence there.  R.U. Sirius appears to have been inspired by Wilson's Cosmic Trigger in the selection of his nom de plume.

 High Frontiers morphed into Reality Hackers magazine then transformed into Mondo 2000, an extremely influential publication circa late '80s/early 90's that helped define the cyberpunk culture of the time. Timothy Leary was installed as a contributing editor.

I clearly remember turning Bill Laswell on to Mondo 2000, bringing him a copy to the studio we worked at then, Platinum Island in New York.  It was the issue where Leary interviews Neuromancer author William Gibson. Gibson cited William S. Burroughs as a primary influence.  We had recently recorded Burroughs in that studio.  Laswell ended up contacting Gibson and has sent well-received packages of his music since then.

Another Laswell cohort, Roger Trilling turned up in Leary's circle around the same time.  I'm not  sure what his involvement was, I believe he was trying to help Leary with business dealings.  It did result in my getting a chance to see an unpublished book Leary was working on about cyberpunk consciousness.  I remember him giving an ancient Greek etymology of cyber meaning helmsman or steersman, ie someone who guides and directs their own destiny.  It also contained references to Herman Hesse's Glass Bead Game.  I don't believe any of that material ever got published or used anywhere.

In 2007 R.U. Sirius taught an online course on Timothy Leary's philosophies and theories under the auspices of the Maybe Logic Academy.  I was quite fortunate to be part of that group.  The course materials included Greenfield's and Higgs' Leary bios.  I have fond memories of that class and particularly enjoyed the personal anecdotes Sirius shared about Leary.

There is something about working with a group in a given area, even in the nonphysical presence of the internet, that creates a synergetic, perhaps magical effect, where unsought for insights and moods related to the subject matter unexpectedly turn up.  I wonder if the course had any influence on this latest biography?

The description of Leary's death in the book is quite poignant.  The days leading up to it I found quite moving; hearing about his friends coming to pay their last respects. The obvious deep love they had for him jumps out of the pages.  His last interview, given two days before he died reveals that he was still on the job as one of the world's leading philosophers.

When finding out that he was dying of inoperable prostrate cancer, Leary opted to make this process public with the hope of shedding light on a normally taboo subject.  One result was his final book, Design for Dying, posthumously put together and completed by R.U. Sirius.  The blurb on the back reads:

Leary's flamboyant final statement reveals revolutionary ways to die and redefines, with his trademark creativity and joy how the living can think about death.

Leary closes the Introduction with:

The following pages ... will offer a model for designing your own dying.  As this is the single most important thing you will do your entire life, remember these basic guiding principles, which have guided my existence and work:

Have a sense of humor.
Conform to the Law of Levities.
Think for yourselves.
Question authority.
Celebrate chaotics.
Increasing illumination and understanding is a team sport.
Whether it's living or dying . . . always do it with friends!

Timothy Leary's Trip Thru Time ends with one of my favorite quotes from him given in an interview from Folsom prison.  The clip of this exists on You Tube and is worth searching for:

It's my ambition to really liberate the world.  Why not?  I mean why settle for anything less?  I have a sense of humor about it.  I know the odds are against me, but we only have a few years here, so let's try to leave this spaceship a better a place...

There are many other great things about TLTTT that I haven't time to mention. It's an important book about a real hero.  Read it.

TLTTT is available HERE.


  1. I doubt that I'll find a more insightful and informed review of R.U. Sirius's bio of Leary. Thanks!

  2. I agree with Dr. Johnson - great piece. I also enjoy R.U.'s Maybe Logic course.

  3. Excellent blog post. I'll put up a post at my blog to try to send a few folks your way.

    Your link is bad. You'll want to send people to for their free download.

  4. Thanks Eric & Tom. The link is fixed.

  5. I got the PDF shortly after Tom blogged about it not knowing when I'd ever get around to reading it. After your post here I think I'll move it up the list. Thanks, Oz.

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