A while back ago I wrote a long piece about Hunter S. Thompson
, comparing his legacy to those of his contemporaries, most notably Timothy Leary. While it may be unfair to paint Leary as a polar opposite of Thompson -- the woolly headed guru vs. the great gonzo cynic -- it is my feeling that the comparison between the two offers insight into how each of these icons is perceived today, and how each will be remembered by history.
Unlike Hunter -- who was solidly entrenched in his gonzo persona for the long haul -- Leary embraced the American tradition of personal reinvention, and happily reinvented himself through multiple iterations. At different points in his life Leary was the button-downed Harvard square; the high-priest of Millbrook; the golden guru of the flower-children; the Freak politician; the fugitive intergalactic agent; the beleaguered low-profile has been; and, in his later years, the elder futurist. But what most people remember of Tim are his high-priest days, the days of the shirtless, longhaired guru sitting lotus with a blissed-out grin and love-beads hanging from his neck. While this is surely a caricature, it should be noted that this high-priest persona was not some shallow media invention draped on him without consent, this was Tim being Tim.
While it would be disingenuous to dismiss Leary's total contribution to society solely for one somewhat ridiculous self-important snapshot (Leary, the Buddha? Really?), we can't forget that Leary embraced this notion of Leary as messiah and took it rather seriously. While he always kept his zonko sense of humor and seemed
to keep his ego in check, his actions revealed an ambition far beyond the surreal koans and wise-cracking facade. It can be argued that fate had a hand in catapulting Leary to global guru status, that this mantel was thrust upon him by a generation of lost souls looking for new spiritual salvation. This could very well be true, but among all his contemporaries it was Tim himself who took this ball and ran with it, fusing LSD and his knowledge of human psychology into a superpower he could use to change the world. And he did it; he changed the world.
It is unquestionable that Leary's impact on society and history was (and continues to be) great. While his books like Exopsychology and Neuropolitics contain political insights and authoritarian condemnations that rival those of Hunter himself, they also contain a great deal of speculative vapor and specious pop science that borders on the New Age and teeters into the flaky (we'll get to that later). However, unlike Thompson, it was not Leary's written work that made him an icon, it was his ambition. Leary was not content to simply turn people on to truth, he wanted to be a Leader. He made a plan and devised a strategy to take over California. To say that he had a private volunteer army of artists, revolutionaries, drug dealers, and hot young girls working for him would make the whole Freak Party operation sound seedy, but is this really any different than what Warhol was doing? The theory is the same, but on a vastly different scale. Leary used the techniques of the Warhol factory to create a social movement for himself, a social movement in which he became synonymous with Peace and Love and Enlightenment. To say he was overreaching is putting it mildly, but Tim believed man. Tim believed.
But dissing on Tim because he was passionate about something would be wrong; some might call it petty. Unlike Hunter -- who believed in little else but human moral fallibility and the compromising taint of power -- Leary believed in something positive, something that was supposed to uplift people and pull them from their walking sleep into enlightenment. We should give Leary credit for his optimism; few modern philosophers have the balls to attempt such a grand transformational feat -- though to be fair, Leary stole the whole shtick of freeing minds from the Buddha (and older schools of Vedic thought), which is one reason why Buddhism and oriental mysticism trickles down through psychedelic culture and esthetics even to this day. Leary was a catalyst and a confuser, recklessly blending archetypes from different cultures into a mishmash of tripped-out metaphysics that blew minds and started a global social movement. It was wild
Creating a social movement on the level of Leary's golden age of hippies is no small feat. The only modern contemporary to Leary I can really think of is L. Ron Hubbard and Crowley before him, but even Hubbard and Crowley were preaching within exclusive illuminati heirarchies of knowledge, while Leary proposed to blow down all those pre-conceived hierarchies and re-invent them as he/she/we/they/I/you saw fit. He was the extreme post-modern re-constructuralist -- take the pieces of the huge broken machine, smash them apart, and build a thousand tiny new machines. It was socialist populism, Marxist capitalism, and stylish anarchy all rolled into one. It was the half-baked, tie-died, ghetto-class message for the information age: Peer-to-peer communities work and become empowered when they are bonded
by belief, a fact that is demonstrably true from the tribal to nation-state level. Leary tapped directly into the core this primal human power structure -- belief -- and threw in a monkey wrench with some hastily prepared documentation. And go figure, it worked. For a while.
Leary's biggest problem, all along, was reality. I could say that Leary let his own illusions go to his head, but that would be missing some critical points. Leary knew that he was playing a dangerous game; he had Liddy on his tail and dead friends to prove it, some hit with what appeared to be assassin-like precision. But despite all that Tim soldiered on, weaving an underground army of support for the democratic takeover of California, a political gambit which ended in his arrest on a two-bit pot violation. Here is where Leary's dream-world came crashing into the Fear and Loathing of Thompson's running nightmare: No matter how much flower power you have, it ain't gonna cut it up against State and Federal thugs with guns looking to take you down. All Leary could do was smile and crack jokes while the cuffs were cranked down. In didn't matter if he was considered more dangerous than Manson now, Tim still believed.